The Howard Hughes Corporation has continually promised to provide parking for Merriweather and to “bring jobs, retail, restaurants, cultural amenities, and a full spectrum of affordable housing to Downtown Columbia.” And all this, they claim, at no cost to you!
If that sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is! In exchange for everything they have promised, Howard Hughes is actually asking the Howard County taxpayer for a lot -- for increased density, decreased parking, a 40-year agreement, a minimal responsibility for affordable housing, and for $170 million in public subsidies! They fail to mention that before they filed their alternative proposal for affordable housing in Downtown, I filed mine which is also currently pending before the Council. Unlike their plan, my plan is simple. It calls for at least 15% affordable housing for all future Downtown residential development, while ensuring that Downtown Columbia develops with a full spectrum of housing options as envisioned in the Downtown Columbia Plan.
The reality is that the Council already voted to support all of those things in 2010! In fact, they are part of the plan we passed in 2010 in order to create a vibrant, walkable downtown with enhanced environmental features, community gathering spaces, and where art and culture continued to play an important role. And that this would increase our tax base … a net positive for all of Howard County!
But the uncomfortable truth is that HHC has changed the game on us, not the other way around. In 2010, they introduced a plan for 5500 units, more than 5 ½ million sf of office and retail, and a hotel and conference center… with minimal setbacks from roads and 20 story buildings among other things. The claim was that we had to approve this much development in order to incentivize the type of private investment we needed to preserve Merriweather and “continue to enhance Jim Rouse’s vision of Columbia as socially responsible and environmentally friendly place for people of all ages, incomes and backgrounds” and to have that vibrant Downtown everyone talked about.
But now, they have changed the focus from these important community and people centered goals to a focus on achieving the maximum development program, and they claim that without a $170 million TIF, this development program cannot be achieved. But keep in mind that 5500 units, 20 story buildings, and intense retail and office competing with our existing businesses were never the goal, they were the means for achieving our goals.
Now, turning that conversation on its head, Howard Hughes tells us that the only way to achieve this level of density and intensity is to entirely rely on structured parking which they claim cannot be done without a TIF. However, many have come to us with examples in Howard County and beyond of successful structured parking built without TIFs. And we know there are plenty of examples of successful, vibrant, sustainable but less intense urban Downtown developments both in and out of Maryland.
Columbia was just named Money Magazine’s #1 BEST PLACE TO LIVE for 2016 which only validated what we already know … Columbia, still following the original Rouse vision, is already a pretty special, successful, amazing, and desirable place to live. We cannot and should not (and frankly don’t need to) compromise our values and our future to get someone to invest in us! That is why I do not support the joint proposal for affordable housing, and instead I have an alternate proposal for affordable housing that I believe will better serve Howard County. And that is why I cannot and will not support the $170 Million TIF as proposed.
More of my thoughts on the proposed changes to the Downtown Columbia:
Money Magazine recently named Columbia the Number One Best Place to Live for 2016,
and I couldn’t agree more! My family came here in 1973 after hearing about the Rouse vision, so I had the great fortune to grow up here under the People Tree. And when it came time to start my own family, I knew perfect place. Now, as I raise my three children here, I know I made the right choice! Not only are they enjoying the high quality of life this planned community has to offer, but more importantly, I know I am raising them in a place where people are important, and where diversity and inclusiveness are not just tolerated, they are valued and celebrated.
When we voted on the Downtown Plan in 2010, it was critical to me that the plan would “Continue and enhance Jim Rouse’s vision of Columbia as a thriving, socially responsible and environmentally-friendly place for people of all ages, incomes and backgrounds.” Including a full spectrum of affordable housing was a critical step toward achieving this goal.
So of course, when it turned out that Downtown Columbia was developing without affordable housing, like many others, I was alarmed. This was not the vision Rouse had for Columbia or the vision we had for Downtown Columbia. And, when I saw the direction the discussions of how we might correct this were headed, I knew I had to do something. In June, I introduced a package of bills to ensure a full spectrum of affordable housing throughout Downtown so that people of all socio-economic backgrounds could live together in an inclusive community.
The plan I proposed is simple and implements the original recommendations of the Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation - calling for at least 15% affordable housing for all future Downtown residential development. It doesn’t add density or leave the community vulnerable to the perils associated with unlimited density. It doesn’t shift the responsibility for affordable housing away from the developer, setting a dangerous precedent for affordable housing throughout Howard County. It doesn’t decrease parking requirements, and it doesn’t tie the County’s hands with a 40 year agreement. Unfortunately, what the Administration has proposed does all of these things and concentrates the majority of the affordable units in Low Income Housing Tax Credit Projects with either 50% or 100% affordable units in each building.
In addition, and perhaps equally troubling, the Administration proposal comes accompanied by tax increment financing (TIF) legislation. While TIF financing does not necessarily have to be used to revitalize blighted or economically depressed areas, the test is whether or not the development would otherwise occur “but for” this extraordinary infusion of public financing. And, I believe it is a tool that should be used sparingly. Why are we being asked to use tax payer money to encourage development in the #1 Best Place to Live? While making Downtown Columbia more vibrant is a goal shared by many, we are selling ourselves short if we think we need huge public subsidies to make this happen.
My Housing Proposal
I was proud to pre-file legislation (CB43-2016, CB44-2016, CB45-2016) in May, for June consideration, to ensure that Downtown Columbia develops with a full spectrum of housing options as envisioned in the Downtown Columbia Plan. Calling for at least 15% affordable housing for all future Downtown residential development, my legislation would implement the original recommendations of Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation (CDHC) that were presented to the County Council in February. CDHC was asked for its best advice on how to be sure that, moving forward, affordable housing units would be included in Downtown Columbia.
The developer did not like CDHC’s recommendations and responded with a counter-proposal that was very different than CDHC’s February recommendations. Implementation of CDHC’s recommendations were then delayed in order to give the developer, the Administration, and CDHC an opportunity to negotiate regarding HHC’s counter-proposal. The result of those discussions form the basis of the Administration’s proposal for affordable housing in Downtown which, if implemented, would also increase residential density, reduce parking requirements, and bind the County to a 40 year agreement committing not to change the applicable laws for that same time period.
What my plan does
- Calls for 15% affordable housing for all future Downtown residential development
- Integrates units throughout the community
- Implements the original recommendations of Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation
- Ensures that new development in Downtown Columbia includes a full spectrum of housing options as envisioned in the Downtown Columbia Plan
- Provides some flexibility for deeper levels of affordability.
What my plan does not do
- Does NOT concentrate units in developments with 50-100% affordable units
- Does NOT increase the density
- Does NOT reduce parking requirements
- Does NOT bind the County to a 40 year agreement
Key concerns about the administration’s proposal
- Increases density by at least 900 units with no actual limit on density.
- Decreases parking requirements.
- Binds the County to a 40 year agreement committing not to change the applicable laws for that same time period.
- Negotiates away the County’s legislative authority, giving the developer undue influence over policy decisions.
- Undermines the County’s existing housing policy which calls for the inclusion of affordable housing units throughout new developments. A full spectrum of affordable housing.
Some key acronyms and terms you may hear when talking about the affordable housing proposals
Inclusionary Zoning – requires a certain percentage of units in new construction to be affordable
CDHC: Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation
HHC: Howard Hughes Corporation
LIHTC: Low Income Housing Tax Credit
MIHU: Moderate Income Housing Units
DRRA: Development Rights and Responsibilities Agreement
AMI: Area Median Income
APFO: Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance
TIF: Tax Increment Financing
Inclusionary zoning requirements like the one I am proposing are the most proven and effective way to provide affordable housing options without an ongoing reliance on subsidies. And, while I am open to new ideas that will enhance this proposal and our community’s future, I firmly believe we cannot compromise on the core principle that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds should be able to make Downtown Columbia their home.
Shifting the responsibility for affordable housing from the developer to the County taxpayer should not be the solution. This is a very important discussion.
To be part of the conversation, or any conversation for that matter, feel free to email me directly at email@example.com or the County Council at firstname.lastname@example.org.