As the county administration continues to finalize a 40-year agreement with Columbia's master developer, Howard Hughes Corp., competing proposals for affordable housing in downtown Columbia drew mixed criticism at a planning board meeting Thursday night.
The planning board delayed a vote on the proposals to May 10 to allow more time for discussion.
The county expects the agreement with Howard Hughes, the housing corporation and the housing commission to be finalized by the last week of May.
As the package moves forward, the administration is working on a separate deal that uses county bonds to help finance the development of downtown Columbia with Howard Hughes. Property taxes generated by the project would pay off the debt using a sometimes controversial public financing tool called tax increment financing. The TIF allows local governments to borrow against the future increased value of property to make public improvements to the area.
This year's budget includes a $120 million placeholder for the TIF as the county continues to hammer out the public financing deal with Howard Hughes. A $50 million placeholder for downtown Columbia has been in place since 2010. The fiscal year 2017 budget includes $70 million and $40 million in 2018 in TIFs for projects, but recipients have not been finalized.
"We are still in deliberations in the moment. The dollars are a good estimate," said Stan Milesky, director of the county's finance department, at a work session in mid-April.
The administration has stressed it is negotiating the developer's rights agreement with Howard Hughes "purely… towards guaranteeing full spectrum housing" and not with TIF in mind, said Carl DeLorenzo, the county's director of policy and programs.
Of the 817 housing units approved by the county — 380 at the Metropolitan, an apartment complex across from the Mall in Columbia, and 437 more at an apartment building planned next door — not one is considered affordable.
The administration's proposal for affordable housing, which it hailed as a consensus-driven, comprehensive package with input from the downtown housing corporation, the housing commission and the developer, increases Downtown Columbia's density by allowing nearly 1,000 affordable housing units on top of the current cap of 5,500 regular units allowed under the county's general plan.
The administration's plan includes a draft agreement that vests the developer with rights to develop property by freezing the current zoning in exchange for rights and conditions on how properties develop. The agreement, which lays out development plans using land contributions, transfers and tax credits, adheres closely to a June proposal by Howard Hughes in response to recommendations by the housing corporation.
If executed, the agreement would be the second in the county's history.
A second plan for affordable housing in Downtown Columbia, proposed by Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, largely mirrors the housing corporation's original plan by creating 702 new housing units at 40 to 80 percent of the county's median income, which currently is $110,133. The plan calls for 15 percent of all units to be affordable and is similar to affordable housing requirements in other parts of the county.
Steve Sprecher, who works in the housing and urban development field, applauded the simplicity and straightforwardness of Terrasa's plan Thursday night.
"It's setting public housing policy from Howard County's [perspective]," Sprecher said.
Critics questioned whether the county's agreement with developer Howard Hughes, which some said creates "too many ifs, ands or buts" is the best deal for the county and inclusionary affordable housing.
"The [developer's agreement] only creates 500 new housing opportunities while relocating 400 families who already have sound housing options," said Roy Appletree, a member of the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition who resigned from the housing corporation in protest to its joint recommendations. "The [developer's agreement] is bad public policy for such a large-scale development with so little new affordable housing."
Grace Kubofcik, also from the Full Spectrum coalition, said the administration's proposal "radically alters" the county's land use and affordable housing policies by tying it to additional affordable units with increased density.
Supporters of the administration's package said the proposal is the product of years of consensus-building, resulting in a higher chance of successful implementation.
"Why substitute one 'maybe, possibly, if the stars align' for another option that will still take a while to bring us any significant number of affordable units and ultimately gives us a smaller final number?" said Joan Lancos, a Columbia resident.
People Acting Together in Howard, or PATH, a large community organization in the county, voiced strong support for the administration's proposal, although the organization cited concerns about clustering the range of affordable housing and the uniformity of internal features of affordable housing with regular units.
"No one is going to get everything that they want," said Mary Kanahan, an Ellicott City resident who spoke on behalf of PATH.
The TIF was the elephant in the room, Kanahan said, adding the developer's agreement and the TIF deal should evaluated "side by side."
After the planning board's vote on May 10, the proposals will be pre-filed as legislation by the end of May. The planning board, which is reviewing a draft proposal, is legally authorized to examine whether or not the proposal is in line with the county's general guiding plans, which have been tailored to reflect the agreement with the developer.