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Legislation Aims to Prime Affordable Housing Pump

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Six years after adoption of the Downtown Columbia Plan, the number of affordable housing units built stands at zero.

That’s a bit of a head-scratcher, considering that some initial large-scale mixed-use residential projects have been completed, others are in the planning stage and ongoing construction activity is widespread.

In late June, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman filed eight bills to advance the affordable housing plan and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for Downtown Columbia. The legislation would amend the county code, Howard County General Plan and Downtown Columbia Plan, providing a legal framework to guarantee development of affordable housing in Downtown.

Under the plan, which contractually obligates Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC) to create a full spectrum of housing options, the Howard County Housing Commission will utilize federal and state programs to accelerate that development.

Recommendations developed by the Housing Commission, the Columbia Downtown Housing Corp. (CDHC), HHC and Howard County government include HHC contributing a combination of fees to the Housing Trust Fund, land transfers to the Housing Commission and the construction of units for low- and middle-income households. The Housing Commission will rely on state and federal tax credits to finance Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) projects.

“The administration’s … legislation accomplishes the goals set by the Downtown Columbia Plan and will deliver high quality, affordable units for a wide range of households,” said Housing Commission Director Tom Carbo, who said the plan has been fully vetted by the CDHC and is supported by the Housing Commission.

Alternate Plan

Competing legislation to address the affordable housing issue filed by Councilwoman Jen Terrasa (D-Dist. 3) is also under consideration.

The plans differ in terms of number of units, methods and timing. Terrasa’s plan would deliver 422–722 affordable units targeting residents ranging from 40% to 80% of the Baltimore Region Area Median Income (AMI) in perpetuity, while the administration’s plan foresees 900 units and an AMI range of 30% to 80% for at least 40 years. The numbers are based on 5,500 market rate units under the administration’s plan and 4,798–5,078 market rate units under Terrasa’s.

According to the administration’s plan, the Housing Commission would have the right to acquire 850 units, 500 of which are affordable. Terrasa’s proposal for affordable housing relies on the Moderate Income Housing Unit (MIHU) program, while the administration’s plan adds other options, including fee-in-lieu, finance gap funding, land transfers, state financing and federal tax credits.

Under Terrasa’s proposal, units become available as buildings are built, whereas the administration’s plan requires a majority of LIHTC construction during the early and mid-stages of Downtown development.

Toby Orenstein, co-owner of Toby’s Dinner Theater, said she supports the administration’s plan and affordable housing in general.

“[P]eople who don’t want affordable housing are thinking they don’t want their neighborhood to become a ghetto … and they’re wrong,” Orenstein said. “The people who want the affordable housing are actors, nurses, musicians, people that work in the mall, people that drive their bikes to go to work. Young people can’t afford to live in Columbia.”

The TIF

As to the TIF, the administration notes that analysis of the HHC development plan for Phase I of the Crescent neighborhood indicates it would likely generate a below-market rate of return and is not feasible. County financing of some of the critical infrastructure improvements would increase the likelihood of success.

It also argues that investment required for growth would come not from existing tax revenues, but from new revenues generated by the development enabled by the new infrastructure, without competing with other county capital project needs.

Judy Fisher-George, of Laurel, questioned the need to demolish and replace “perfectly good” buildings such as the Central Branch Library and Banneker Fire Station.

Howard Bank Senior Vice President Dick Story, however, advised the council that eight recent TIF activities in Anne Arundel County are performing well, generating $31 million into that county’s fiscal 2016 budget.

“From my perspective, TIFs are a good investment,” he said.

Columbia resident Ian Kennedy also said he supports the TIF because it would solve the question of parking for Merriweather Post Pavilion.

“My support is much broader and deeper, and has to do with a fundamental flaw in downtown Columbia,” he said. “Nearly all of the parking is controlled by only two corporations, and public access … cannot be guaranteed. I’ve heard the concerns of others that this TIF would represent a developer giveaway; I strongly disagree with that notion. This TIF is largely funding a public asset that can promote the public good, without competing for General Fund dollars.”

Budget Skirmish

In other business before the council last month, the county executive filed a resolution to sell 7.7 acres of county-owned property in the Long Reach Village Center, which would trigger a Request for Proposal (RFP) process seeking a developer to begin redeveloping the Village Center. Commercial real estate firm Chartwell Enterprises, of Greenbelt, will conduct the RFP.

According to county Planning and Zoning Deputy Director Raj Kudchadkar, a sales agreement could follow by the spring of 2017, at which point the chosen developer will begin the required multi-step community planning and redevelopment process.

Lonnie Robbins, the county’s chief administrative officer, asked the council to support a resolution authorizing a multi-year grant agreement with the Housing Commission. The agreement would provide a 10-year rent subsidy to benefit the county’s proposed Consolidated Human Services Center, which currently has 14 confirmed nonprofit tenants.

The council unanimously approved a resolution to create a School System Budget Review Committee during its July legislative session, as well as a resolution to endorse the designation of Long Reach Village Center as a sustainable community.

A new resolution introduced by Council Members Mary Kay Sigaty and Jon Weinstein proposes amending the Howard County Charter to give the council additional options to reallocate funds it cuts from the county executive’s proposed budget, and allowing those funds to be moved to the county’s pension fund and a contingency reserve fund.

Kittleman released a statement in July labeling the resolution “a solution looking for a problem.”

“The County Council already has the power to cut the proposed budget to provide an increase to the public school system; put budget conditions on certain items, like it did for the Non-Profit [Consolidate Human Services] Center, or cut taxes,” Kittleman wrote, arguing that the system is consistent with the budget process in the state and other local counties. “We already have a rainy day fund and contingency funds for snow and other emergencies. If the Council deems a project not worthy of funding, then it should reduce taxes, not put the funds in a redundant contingency account.”