Lack of affordable housing in downtown Columbia spurs changes

Sweeping changes linger as affordable housing lags in downtown Columbia

The County Council is considering a resolution that would expedite construction of affordable housing units downtown, which some county officials say is lagging behind the rest of the redevelopment.

The resolution, introduced Oct. 6., tasks the Downtown Columbia Housing Corporation, a nonprofit charged with ensuring a full spectrum of housing in downtown, with recommending legislative changes to speed up construction of affordable units.

The corporation has encountered challenges in carrying out its goals, according to the wording of the resolution, most notably it's goal to make 15 percent of the proposed 5,500 new units in the downtown affordable.

In its annual report completed in March, the corporation concluded that legislative changes are necessary, including amendments to the Downtown Columbia Plan – a master guiding document for the redevelopment that took years to formulate.

This conclusion spurred action from elected officials, who say they are "frustrated" and "disappointed" with the lack of progress on the issue from the Howard Hughes Corp., the principal land owner and economic leader of the redevelopment.

"I think it's very clear that we have not been able to see any housing affordability," said Mary Kay Sigaty, the county councilwoman representing downtown. "I'm going to say that, given the frustration level. ... I wouldn't be surprised if [the resolution leads to legislative changes]."

County Executive Ken Ulman agreed in a prepared statement.

"As I have said before, a full spectrum of housing opportunities is an important part of our plan for Downtown Columbia," said Ulman, who proposed then tabled a bill earlier this year that would have forced the developer to build affordable units sooner than initially planned. "I remain disappointed that we have not made more progress in that area.

"The Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation has the skills, mission and professional expertise to lead the way in developing the best solution. I think this is the right direction to take, having the corporation examine options and present the [c]ouncil with the right changes needed to build the community we all want."

Affordable housing rates are determined using the median income of county households, which is $108,844, according to census data. Prospective buyers, for example, must earn no more than 80 percent of the median to be eligible for a "moderate-income" unit. Renters can earn no more than 60 percent.

Since the Downtown Columbia Plan was passed in 2010, there has been a surge in development downtown, most of which has been led by Howard Hughes. Projects include the opening of a Whole Foods in the recently renovated former Rouse Company building, the construction of the Metropolitan, a $100 million, 380-unit apartment complex, and the approval of the plans for a second apartment development adjacent to the Metropolitan, which would cost $125 million and hold 437 units plus retail.

None of the 817 units proposed in the two residential projects will be at affordable rates. The first affordable units in downtown will likely be built in the Little Patuxent Square development, a nine-story, mixed-use building that broke ground this summer on an empty lot near the lakefront.

Howard Hughes has, however, thus far fulfilled its obligation under the plan, which states that a developer can pay a fee of $2,000 per apartment unit in lieu of building affordable units. That money, along with $1.5 million in a one-time payment, goes to the corporation, which is then tasked with using it to support or build affordable housing in downtown.

The issue, according to corporation chairman Paul Casey, is that the money is not enough.

"It's a modest resource, which could be used to help other money, but in and of itself, it's not sufficient," he said. "There was an expectation that the foundation [corporation] would be able to accomplish that goal. ... The corporation ended up coming to the conclusion that there weren't enough tools."

Casey said more incentives need to be added to the plan, and that the timeline to build affordable housing needs to be accelerated.

"We don't want to get a point where we are several thousand units in and no affordable housing," Casey said.

The resolution, which will be considered for a vote next month, states that recommendations are due by March 1.

Greg Fitchitt, vice president of development with Howard Hughes, said affordable housing is key to developing a complete downtown. He added that "it's a good idea" to have the corporation reevaluate the plan.

"If there is a need to change that, it should be done through a thoughtful and deliberative process, and I think that's what the legislation is trying to do," he said.

Fitchitt said Howard Hughes is contemplating building affordable units in the Crescent development, a 5 million square-foot project that will convert woodlands into a mix of commercial, residential and civic uses, as well as the redevelopment of the lakefront.

He said there are economic challenges to building affordable housing: "It is pretty simple math. If you have to provide lower rents, it doesn't support as much construction cost."

Casey said the corporation understands those challenges and is willing to work create more incentives. Among the ideas being considered is a bonus density program, which allows the developer to build one extra market rate unit for every affordable unit built. Casey said a fast-track approval process for developments that include affordable housing is another incentive.

"As a matter of enhancing the social and economic fabric of the community, you want to have a community where a full spectrum of people can live," Casey said. "Everyone is committed to that in concept, the question is how do we get there."

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