Downtown Columbia bill criticized at council hearing

Affordable housing advocates Monday expressed surprise and disappointment that the bill setting up a Downtown Columbia Partnership makes the Howard County Housing Commission responsible for administering housing funds and ensuring affordable housing requirements are met in downtown.

The commission, which is the county's public housing authority, has been focused on providing moderate-income housing, advocates argued, noting they were hoping downtown would provide more low-income housing options.


"The legislation as drafted ignores the ... County Council approved authorization and creation of a nonprofit entity organized for the purpose of providing full-spectrum, below-market housing in downtown Columbia," Jackie Eng, president of the Association of Community Services, told the County Council at a hearing on the bill Monday.

Eng was one of 10 people who testified on the bill June 18, all of whom expressed concerns about the legislation. Most of their concerns were related to the proposal's deviation from the much-debated 2000 General Plan amendment, commonly known as the Downtown Columbia Plan, which was approved by the council in February 2010 to guide the 30-year redevelopment of downtown Columbia development.


"We were assured time and time again that the General Plan amendment was to be fully enforceable," said Alan Klein, spokesman for the Coalition of Columbia's Downtown. "And so it is disappointing, to put it mildly, that this plan deviates so significantly from the General Plan amendment.

"If this bill passes, unfortunately we will have been proved right that the General Plan amendment is only advisory."

The plan called for legislation to create an organization called the Downtown Columbia Community Housing Foundation "to satisfy all affordable housing requirements for downtown."

"The legislation should provide that, in order to be eligible to receive the funds provided for in this Plan, the DCCHF must be a non-profit entity organized for the purpose of providing full spectrum, below market housing in Downtown Columbia," the plan reads.

The plan also called for "the establishment of the Downtown Columbia Partnership (DCP), an independent nonprofit organization, to carry out important services and community functions in Downtown Columbia," including transportation initiatives, marketing, security, beautification and maintenance projects and sponsoring cultural arts programs.

However, the legislation that County Executive Ken Ulman is now proposing would have the Downtown Columbia Partnership also serve as the Downtown Columbia Community Housing Foundation. The partnership would collect money from developers — $2,000 per residential unit and 5 cents per square foot of commercial space — for the Downtown Columbia Community Housing Fund.

Under Ulman's proposal, the Howard County Housing Commission will use the fund to assist developers in providing affordable housing units, provide low-income residents with rental assistance or homeownership loans and aid in eviction prevention and foreclosure assistance.

Mark Thompson, the county's director of downtown redevelopment, explained that as the administration drafted the bill, county attorneys advised them that to collect fees the partnership would need to be set up as a "commercial district management authority," as opposed to a nonprofit, which could not legally enforce the collection of fees.

"With further reflection and study ... we felt that the best and most effective and efficient form of funneling the monies collected through the partnership, passed through the partnership, would be to go directly to the Housing Commission ... an established entity that could immediately and efficiently utilize these funds," Thompson said.

'A travesty'

But at the hearing, critics weren't buying that explanation.

"When I sat down with GGP (now Howard Hughes) and negotiated the Housing Trust Fund, I would have never agreed to give the money to the Housing Commission," said Tim Sosinski, representing the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition, a group that supports a range of affordable housing options in Howard County. "Our deal with GGP was very clear about the independence issue. We wanted a venture capital fund that could effectively leverage the money and could maximize its impact. The fund needed to be nimble to do the deals with potential buyers."

Council member Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, told Sosinski: "If it makes you feel any better, I wouldn't have voted for the (2010) legislation either if I knew that's how it was going to be."

Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson added: "It is simply a travesty that it was presented to us that way. I certainly support the original intent of the council."

The housing advocates also raised concerns that the legislation does not define affordable housing.

"The fact that the Housing Commission has been proposed to manage the fund indicates that affordable means moderate," said J.D. Smith, of the Howard County Citizens Association.

Some who testified raised concerns about the proposed make-up of the partnership's seven-member board of directors.

As proposed, Howard Hughes senior vice president John DeWolf, Mall in Columbia General Manager Katie Essing, Columbia Association President Phil Nelson and Ulman would be four of the members.

The other three members will be representatives from Howard Hughes until 500,000 square feet of commercial space is developed in downtown, at which time the county executive would appoint two members who either own commercial property or a business in downtown, or live in close proximately to downtown. The third member must be a commercial property owner in downtown.

Since four members make up a quorum, Klein said, until 500,000 square feet of commercial space is developed Howard Hughes will have control of the partnership.

"That doesn't sound like much of a partnership to us," he noted.

Added Linda Wengel, of the Town Center Village Board: "We believe it's essential that a representative of the residential community be added to the board of directors."

Council member Calvin Ball said he shares the concerns.

"I do not think it's an appropriate composition," he said. .

Thompson, asked to explain the administration's rationale, said Howard Hughes was given the majority stake until 500,000 square feet of retail is developed because the company is responsible for the start-up costs of the partnership.

The bill is scheduled to be discussed at the council's work session June 21 at 4:30 p.m. A vote on the bill is scheduled for July 2 at 7:30 p.m. Both meetings will be held at the George Howard building in Ellicott City.

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