Affordable-housing plan attacked


Architects of an affordable housing development proposed for Columbia's Long Reach village say the project will be an asset to the community, but nearby homeowners are circulating a petition calling it "a recipe for various disasters."

Long Reach residents, mostly from the new Kendall Ridge section where the 64-townhouse Streamwood development is proposed, criticize the project's design. They also say the development could affect property values adversely, lead to an increase in crime, and create an overabundance of affordable units for sale and rent in the vicinity.

"There's a general feeling by Long Reach residents that we already have enough low-income housing for the low-income people in our area," said Lucie Pettis, a leader of the petition effort. "We want it more dispersed throughout Columbia, rather than in one area where people can point at it and say, 'That's where affordable housing is.' "

The project's developers -- the Rouse Co. and the Enterprise Foundation -- say they will consider design changes recommended by residents, but they remain committed to building Streamwood.

The two Columbia-based developers, working in partnership with the Howard County Housing Commission, say they are contributing to a county government goal that calls for creating 267 units per year of "affordable" housing, including 100 to 150 units of new construction.

"Affordable housing is part of the plan for Columbia and an important element in the strategy for the county," said Mark Sissman, president of the Enterprise Social Investment Corp., an Enterprise Foundation subsidiary and Streamwood's lead developer. "We are one of a number of developers active in that arena. It's what we do."

Alton J. Scavo, Rouse Co. general manager of Columbia, said the new town's developer always has sought to provide housing for a wide range of income levels. The Rouse Co. plans to sell Enterprise 5 acres at a below-market rate for Streamwood.

Streamwood is a component of a plan to build 740 housing units on 147 acres owned by the Rouse Co. east of Snowden River Parkway and north of Route 175. Thirty-six Streamwood townhouses would be for sale to buyers with incomes from about $25,000 to $40,000 -- well below Columbia's average household income of $72,150, according to Rouse -- and would carry first mortgages of $85,000.

The Housing Commission would own the remaining 28 townhouses, which would rent for about $450 per month to those with incomes ranging from about $18,000 to $25,000. Six townhouses would be "shared-living" units divided into two apartments, each with a common area. Accounts would be set up to help tenants eventually purchase eight Streamwood rentals.

Traditional rules for qualifying

Traditional income and credit criteria would be used to qualify owners and renters, say Enterprise Foundation officials, who expect to attract county workers such as teachers and firefighters.

But Kendall Ridge resident James R. Long said the project seems ill-conceived because the area has an ample supply of affordable housing.

"Down the block, there are condos for sale in the same price range," he said. "I really question the need for it."

Realtors say there's validity in Mr. Long's assessment. Three-bedroom condominiums and townhouses starting at about $85,000 -- mostly older units in Columbia -- are for sale in the county, said Kenneth M. Steil, president of the Howard County Association of Realtors. Families with incomes of $25,000 to $32,000 could qualify, he said.

However, the older, more affordable homes "may not be everyone's dream," he said.

"No question, it's a challenge," he said. "But it's not that there's no housing available. It's a question of expectations."

Forty-one condominiums and houses priced from $75,000 to $100,000 with at least two bedrooms are on the market in the ZIP code area that includes Long Reach, and 172 such units are listed countywide, according to the Central Maryland Multiple Listing Service.

Regardless, projects such as Streamwood are necessary because of Howard's high housing costs and the volatile economy, said Leonard Vaughan, executive director of the Housing Commission.

"What we're looking at is a wide range of people who really can't afford to purchase or rent," he said.

The average sales price of county homes in 1993 was $188,358, according to the Realtors association. For June, the average sales price was $192,518 for county homes, and $156,612 for homes in Columbia ZIP code areas.

Developers' costs

Streamwood's developers say opportunities to build affordable housing, especially ownership units on expensive Howard County land, are rare and should be seized. A developer must find ways to reduce costs at every stage of the home-building process -- land acquisition, building materials, infrastructure, and construction and mortgage financing -- to enable production of below-market rate units, they say.

When the Housing Commission put out a request a year ago for developers who could produce affordable housing within a short time frame, the for-profit Rouse Co. and the nonprofit Enterprise Foundation, which produces affordable housing nationwide, joined and responded.

"It's an opportunity," Mr. Scavo said. "Everybody has a right to their own opinion -- it's America. But in my opinion, this is a good thing, not a bad thing."

About 150 Long Reach residents met with the developers July 11. Some recommended design changes to address traffic or parking concerns. Others complained that the project is being rammed through and urged that it be scrapped.

Hunter's Hollow opposition

Some of the most vocal opponents are from Hunter's Hollow, a 3-year-old development north of the proposed Streamwood site where new townhouses are priced between $150,000 and $175,000. Troutman Communities, Hunter's Hollow's developer, has received numerous calls from residents expressing concern that Streamwood would adversely affect their property values and increase the potential for crime, said President John Troutman.

Ms. Pettis said crime seems to be a problem around the Long Reach Village Center, where there's a concentration of "low-income housing." She added she doesn't know if there's a relationship.

She said she'd prefer having market-rate townhouses built instead of Streamwood because they wouldn't adversely affect property values.

But Mr. Vaughan of the Housing Commission said property values don't appear to suffer in Columbia's mixed-income neighborhoods, adding that tony, new Columbia subdivisions often have been built near low- and moderate-income developments.

George Martin, vice president of the Howard County Housing Alliance, said residents seem to be reacting with "a lot of emotion" and appear fearful of an unexpected change.

"When you hear the terms 'affordable housing,' 'low- and moderate-income,' those are words that seem to trigger some feelings," said Mr. Martin, whose organization seeks to ensure that quality housing is available and affordable to all. "I don't think people have worked out for themselves what this really means."

But several opponents and Long Reach Village Board Chairwoman Cecilia Januszkiewicz pointed out that Long Reach and Kendall Ridge have a wide range of housing. They said residents are not "elitist NIMBYs -- Not In My Back Yard" adherents.

Long Reach residents have criticized the concept behind Streamwood, saying it would segregate affordable homes rather than intersperse them.

Streamwood's developers, while acknowledging that affordable housing is not evenly distributed throughout Columbia, say it is impractical to mix moderately priced units among market-rate homes. The Howard County Council rejected a proposal last year that would have promoted that type of development.

"Let's not use that as an excuse that we shouldn't do anything more," Mr. Scavo said.

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