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Howard Co. executive candidates address affordable housing at PATH event

Kim Graham and her husband want to live in Howard County -- it's where the couple work, it's where they grew up, it's where their friends are, it's where they go to church.

But the recently married couple, in their late-20s, reside outside the county, and not really by choice. Both teachers in the county, they can't afford to live in the richest county in the state on their modest salaries.

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"Howard County is our home," Graham said. "To our dismay, we found that buying a house in Howard County is but a dream."

Graham said she isn't alone. That's why the grassroots organization PATH, or People Acting Together in Howard, has come up with a specific agenda to address the issue of affordable housing in the county. On Tuesday evening, PATH held a campaign event that its leaders said brought them one step closer to making change.

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At the event, attended by hundreds at St. John's Baptist Church in Columbia, county executive candidates Courtney Watson, a Democrat, and Allan Kittleman, a Republican, as well as candidates for the Board of Education, were asked to commit to PATH's agendas on specific county issues, including affordable housing.

According to Cynthia Marshall, one of the leaders of PATH, affordable housing was one of the most common issues raised among the group's membership.

"We heard this at the majority of our meetings: They want to live in Howard County, and they can't afford it," she said.

She said Howard County is lagging behind other jurisdictions when it comes to affordable housing offerings.

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"Montgomery County and Arlington County [Va.] spend much more per capita on affordable housing," Marshall said.

The non-partisan group has created a four-pronged affordable housing agenda. The first prong is to expand the current Moderate Income Housing Unit program to encompass 10 to 15 percent of all new development in Howard County and Columbia.

The second prong focuses on downtown Columbia, and asks that 15 percent of housing developed as part of the revitalization of downtown Columbia be at affordable rates. Specifically, the group wants the average median income of those units to be at 50 percent of the Howard County median income, which currently calculates to $54,000 annually – the median income is around $108,000, according to census data.

The third prong asks for increased funding in the budget, specifically at least $20 million a year. That funding can be distributed in a number of ways, said PATH leaders. The fourth is a commitment to work with PATH to help develop properties with affordable housing on both private and public land.

At Tuesday's forum, both Kittleman and Watson agreed affordable housing is a critical issue.

In response to the PATH agenda, Kittleman said he would commit to supporting all four prongs except for the third, which asks a steady commitment of $20 million per year to affordable housing.

"Funding for affordable housing is complex," he said. "I do not think it would be wise for me to commit tonight to fund $20 million every year without first evaluating how the Howard County Housing Commission and Department of Housing and Community Development are currently administrating the affordable housing programs in Howard County."

Watson said she would commit to all four prongs. She said the third goal can be achieved through funding from a variety of sources, including the general fund, tax credits and revenue generated by the Housing Commission.

"I support that goal," she said. "I think it is a realistic goal if you look at it from different perspectives."

Both Watson and Kittleman said they support the deconcentration of affordable housing, which they say is saturated to parts of the county, specifically Oakland Mills and Long Reach.

The issue is not only on the minds of PATH members. Earlier this week, the County Council, which Watson is a member of, held a public hearing on legislation that could affect major policy changes to affordable housing in downtown Columbia, which is in the midst of a revitalization.

The legislation would give the Downtown Housing Foundation, a nonprofit created to oversee housing in downtown, power to recommend legislation that would increase and expedite affordable housing offers, which some officials say is lagging behind the rest of the redevelopment.

A previous version misidentified a speaker at the event. Her name is Kim Graham. 

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