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Howard planning board tackles Downtown Columbia affordable housing plan

Changes to density, parking and overall affordable housing inch closer to Howard council

After more than a decade of debate on how to include affordable housing in downtown Columbia, the County's planning board is tackling a sweeping package of development proposals that includes nearly 1,000 affordable units tied into an increase in density.

The proposals create a comprehensive affordable housing program that the administration and Howard Hughes Corp., the master developer, say provide more affordable units serving a broad range of incomes with a higher chance of successful implementation.

"The most important thing about this proposal to know is that these recommendations will work," said Greg Fitchitt, vice president of development at Howard Hughes. "This has been thoroughly vetted."

A second proposal, from Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, is also before the board; it requires at least 15 percent of all new housing units to be affordable.

So far, 817 housing units have been approved in downtown. Not one is considered affordable.

The county's current model — which allows Howard Hughes to pay a fee in lieu of building affordable units in Columbia — has not accomplished the county's goal of bringing affordable housing to downtown, according to parties involved in negotiations.

In its plan, the administration has proposed 10 percent of all downtown housing units should be affordable while increasing density by exempting affordable housing units from the 5,500-unit cap for housing allowed under the county's general plan. The proposal requires developers to make a one-time payment into a dedicated trust fund for affordable housing only for for-sale units instead of all residential units.

"[The plan] really does provide the assurance that we will have affordable housing," said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman.

The nearly 400-page legislative package includes a development rights draft agreement negotiated between the county and key stakeholders that allows Howard Hughes 900 affordable housing units above the current cap of 5,500, excluding 110 units outside downtown Columbia, using a mix of land contributions, transfers and tax credits with varied contributions from Howard Hughes and the county's housing commission, a public housing authority.

The agreement, which is still under negotiation, would mean 14 percent of the 6,400-unit total would be affordable, well above the 10 percent required under Kittleman's proposed change, creating what the administration calls an innovative and comprehensive way to quicken the pace of affordable units. Howard Hughes has requested the agreement be effective for 40 years.

Under the proposal, Howard Hughes would reduce parking for studio and one-bedroom apartments. The housing corporation did not take a position on parking in the joint recommendations, according to corporation president Paul Casey.

As of March, the developer has paid more than $4.8 million into the fund, according to John DeWolf, vice president of the Howard Research and Development Corp.

The agreement encapsulates recommendations drafted by Howard Hughes and the Columbia Downtown Housing Corp., the nonprofit affordable housing watchdog; the administration; and the housing commission at the request of the County Council to address existing mechanisms that the housing corporation said were not working.

"The current plan has failed and will continue to fail, said Casey, adding the proposal is "much more likely to succeed given the fact that there are so many parties willing to work together."

If approved, the developer's agreement — formally a Developer's Rights and Responsibilities Agreement — would be the second in the county's history.

Terrasa's competing vision mirrors the downtown housing corporation's first set of recommendations, which were later drastically revised to adhere to a proposal by Howard Hughes,

Her plan sets a minimum of 15 percent affordable housing ranging from 40 to 80 percent of the county's median income. Terrasa said the developer's agreement relieves Howard Hughes of required payments into a housing fund for affordable housing while creating affordable housing tied with a dramatic increase in density — without public facilities to match any increases.

"We are here to set public policy, not to make a deal with Howard Hughes," Terrasa said. "It's the way we do it throughout the county."

The administration contends its proposal provides a wider range of affordable income than Terrasa's plan while setting necessary controls to address impacts on nearby schools and public facilities.

Valdis Lazdins, director of the zoning department, said the administration's competing proposal is "a more comprehensive and consensus-driven package and will better achieve the full-spectrum affordable housing goals in Downtown Columbia." The department recommends the administration's proposal over Terrasa's.

Howard Hughes' joint petition creates around 900 affordable housing units for residents who make up to 80 percent of the county's median income. Each project site would have a varying number of affordable units with varying maximum incomes served.

Terrasa's plan creates 702 new housing units at a median income range of 40 to 80 percent.

Terrasa said her proposal ensures affordable housing is fully integrated throughout downtown Columbia instead of clustering most affordable housing into projects with 50 percent or 100 percent affordable housing.

Exempting affordable housing units from the maximum number of housing units allowed eliminates "any density limit for downtown," Terrasa said.

The developer's agreement plan allows the housing commission to manage properties that generate revenue that can be reinvested into more affordable housing, said housing commission director Tom Carbo.

"It is not a burden on the commission; it is our mission in fact," Carbo said, addressing critics who said the agreement relieves the developer of its responsibility to provide affordable units. "If not for the [developer's agreement], it would put the [commission] in a difficult position to construct those projects independently."

The plan phases development to ensure the construction of affordable housing units is up to pace with market rate units by including minimum affordability levels of residential development for each phase.

Under the developer's agreement, 3 to 5 percent of residential units would be rented to low-income residents who receive federal Section 8 vouchers or make no more than 50 percent of the county's median income.

Another 3 to 5 percent would be rented to residents who make no more than 80 percent of the county's median income.

Six new mixed-income projects funded by low-income housing tax credits would be dispersed downtown in proposed sites like apartments above the Banneker Fire Station, an artists' residence next to Toby's Dinner Theater and a development on land that has been reserved as an alternate fire station site.

Under the proposal, Howard Hughes will create a $3.2 million gap financing fund to help finance some of the tax credit projects.

The developer's agreement includes the former Columbia Flier building outside downtown Columbia, which must be purchased from the county and rezoned for residential use.

The developer's proposal reduces parking for studio and one-bedroom units from 1.65 per unit to 1.3 unit, a "modest reduction" based on local case studies and current industry practice, wrote John DeWolf, vice president of the Howard Research Development Corporation.

However, Terrasa said, "we shouldn't be changing parking until we have a change in transportation."

Carl DeLorenzo, the county's director of policy and programs, said the county is not negotiating the developer's agreement with the goal of Tax Increment Financing, a public finance method that allows local governments to borrow against the future increased value of property to make public improvements.

"In our opinion, we negotiated [a plan] that puts the county in the most solid position to guarantee that these units will be constructed," said DeLorenzo. "This was purely a goal towards guarantee full spectrum housing in downtown Columbia."

According to an analysis by the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, the joint plan will have a positive fiscal impact of $1.2 billion on the county over a 35-year period. The study also calculated the impact of requiring 15 percent of all housing units to be developed at 80 percent affordability, which would generate about $1.1 billion for the county over the same time period.

Some critics said the agreement could lock the county into a dangerous position.

Roy Appletree, who resigned from the housing corporation after voting against the recommendations, said the developer's agreement allows Howard Hughes to "call all the shots," setting a "dangerous" public policy precedent that "binds elected officials for 40 years."

Planning Board chairman Bill Santos said the agreement included concerning language, citing an excerpt: "this developable area may not be expanded, reduced, limited or otherwise altered by any legislative, executive or quasi-judicial action of Howard County."

But Paul Johnson, the deputy county solicitor, said the agreement contains escape hatches allowing the county to terminate the agreement "at any time." Johnson said the draft agreement has not finalized how long the agreement will exist.

The package was discussed on Thursday before the county's Planning Board. A public discussion will continue on April 28 at 7 p.m. in the George Howard building in Ellicott City. Once the planning board decides on a package, it will move to the County Council for consideration. The board's authority is limited to seeing if the developer's agreement aligns with the county's general plans and regulations, according to Johnson.

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