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Competing proposals for affordable housing in downtown Columbia move forward

Plans for downtown Columbia, anchored by the lakefront and the mall, include creating affordable housing. Two proposals are now before the County Council.
Plans for downtown Columbia, anchored by the lakefront and the mall, include creating affordable housing. Two proposals are now before the County Council. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda)

Two competing proposals before the Howard County Council lay out varying visions on how to tackle the thorny issue of affordable housing in downtown Columbia.

A proposal from County Executive Allan Kittleman's administration has been presented as a consensus-driven, comprehensive and secure path and has months of input from the Columbia Downtown Housing Corp.; the county's public housing authority, the Housing Commission; and Columbia's master developer, Howard Hughes Corp. It creates up to 900 affordable units that would increase the housing density of 5,500 units envisioned in the 2010 plan for downtown Columbia to 6,400 units, and would reduce the amount of parking for studios and one-bedroom units.

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If the council passes the proposal, the administration would sign a 40-year binding agreement with Howard Hughes that freezes zoning regulations and creates affordable units using a variety of methods through a federal low-income housing tax credit program, land transfers and existing affordable housing opportunities. Supporters say the agreement is a more guaranteed way to deliver affordable housing through a public-private partnership.

"This agreement is beyond everything that we ever expected," said Paul Casey, chairman of the Columbia Downtown Housing Corp. "It will yield a higher number of units. There is no other proposal that would ensure, at the end of the day, the commission owns all of the tax credit projects."

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Howard Hughes' vice president of development, Greg Fitchitt, said the agreement allows the county to finally realize the vision for downtown Columbia laid out in its 2010 plan.

"The joint recommendations are the product of consensus. Howard Hughes is committed to ensuring that they will work," said Fitchitt.

A second proposal, from Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, would create between 422 and 702 new affordable units. The plan — which Terrasa said is superior to the administration's proposal because of its simplicity — calls for 15 percent of all units to be affordable and mirrors the Columbia Downtown Housing Corp.'s original plan for affordable housing.

"Mine is simple. It [has] got 15 percent inclusionary zoning. It avoids concentration. It doesn't require [an additional] 900 units, no parking reduction and complicated 40-year agreement if we find out things aren't working," said Terrasa.

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The proposals, which could be voted on as early as September, mark a significant milestone in the county's overall debate on how to incorporate affordable housing into downtown Columbia.

The council originally passed a measure to allow developers to pay into a housing fund that the downtown housing corporation would use to provide affordable housing. However, the housing corporation said it could not use the fund to develop affordable housing because of limited leverage with existing landowners.

The result of months of negotiations at the request of the County Council resulted in the binding agreement with Howard Hughes, now before the council for consideration.

Carl DeLorenzo, the county's director of policy and programs, said the developer will contribute the equivalent of nearly $38 million over the course of the development, roughly the same amount it would have paid if the current housing fund structure remained.

The comparison is not definitive because many of the factors that determine the developer's total contribution depend on market forces that change over time and are not equally comparable.

The administration's proposal creates new housing opportunities for people who make between 30 percent and 80 percent of the county's median income of $110,133, not including 200 units reserved for low-income residents who already have federal housing choice vouchers. Terrasa's proposal, which does not use housing choice vouchers, serves people who make 40 percent to 80 percent of the county's median income.

Housing advocates from the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition, an advocacy network that supports nonprofits, said the administration's proposal does not create enough "new" affordable housing opportunities, noting some of the affordable housing projects are on land owned by the county and that nearly 200 of the affordable units use housing choice vouchers that are available in other parts of the county.

Under the administration's plan, varying levels of Howard Hughes' new projects will serve residents with middle incomes and very low incomes. The agreement would allow the housing commission to take more ownership of projects and allow stakeholders to develop five Low Income Housing Tax Credit projects to create 500 affordable units that Terrasa said "stigmatize" affordable housing in specific sites: 100 at the Banneker Fire Station, 100 at Toby's Dinner Theater, 150 at the existing library site, 90 units at a temporary fire station and 60 at the transit center. Man of the affordable units would be integrated in Howard Hughes' new residential development

Pressed for assurances by some council members that the affordable units would be developed, Tom Carbo, the housing commission's director, said he was "fairly confident" the units would be developed.

The agreement includes assurances that the parties will find additional sites for affordable units should any of the projects fall through, said DeLorenzo. Howard Hughes will also contribute up to $3.2 million in gap financing for any additional costs. The downtown corporation will also use $5 million to fund tax credit projects providing additional assurances that affordable units will be built.

DeLorenzo said the administration is willing to add a cap of 6,400 residential units and include affordable units in the total after council members said the legislation did not clearly put a maximum on density because it does not include affordable units in the total number of units allowed.

The reduction in parking is uniquely tailored to the "park once" environment envisioned for downtown, officials said. For every five units at the Metropolitan, four households have one car, "real world data" that Fitchitt said shows tenants are bringing in far fewer cars than expected.

The public can testify on all downtown Columbia legislation, which includes a $90 million tax increment financing plan to develop public infrastructure downtown, on Thursday, July 14 at 6 p.m. at the George Howard building.

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