Affordable housing advocates are pressing Howard County to require that sizable percentages of new housing in Columbia's Town Center be earmarked for moderate and middle income residents.
They say plans for Columbia's downtown, the focus last month of an intensive planning exercise called a charette, should reflect the sentiment of residents who strongly want more affordable housing as Town Center gradually becomes more densely developed.
"This is the 900-pound gorilla staring us in the face," said Andre De Verneil, a member of the Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing.
The coalition has written to county officials asking that 20 percent of Town Center's future housing be committed to moderate and middle income residents. That could amount to 1,100 units over 30 years if county officials embrace the highest-density version of a draft plan presented last month at the charette.
The county has required developers to make some housing available to moderate income residents but until recently hasn't focused on the housing crunch faced by middle income residents, such as firefighters, teachers and store managers. Advocates want county officials to make a strong commitment to moderate and middle income residents.
"We've been talking to politicians for two years, and we see a lot of heads nodding up and down, and we see no concrete action," said Barbara Hope, chairwoman of the coalition, which has been working in Howard for 21/2 years. "The coalition is really re-energized about this."
At the charette, advocates pursued their agenda with Dennis Miller, general manager for Columbia with General Growth Properties Inc., the real estate investment trust that purchased the Rouse Co. and owns most of the prime land in Town Center.
"I wanted to pin him down. He wouldn't be pinned down," said De Verneil, who pressed Miller about committing to affordable housing. But, De Verneil said, "he didn't dismiss it out of hand."
This week, Miller said General Growth was ready to commit 10 percent to affordable housing but not the 20 percent recommended by housing advocates. "We've always said we want to have affordable housing in Town Center," Miller said. He cautioned that Town Center "should not be viewed in a vacuum. We have a great deal of affordable housing here in Columbia."
The draft plan presented at the charette's conclusion envisioned up to 5,500 housing units in high-rise and multi-story buildings near Lake Kittamaqundi, Merriweather Post Pavilion and Governor Warfield Parkway, much of it on General Growth land, said Matthew A. D'Amico, a principal with Design Collective, the county-hired planner for the charette. That additional housing would more than triple the 2,054 housing units now in Town Center.
D'Amico said his company would recommend that a final Town Center plan "should incorporate affordable housing, and it should be dispersed." But, he said, "we're not going to tell the county what it should do."
He noted that with greater density, a higher percentage of affordable housing can be required.
Officials with the county Department of Planning and Zoning appear unlikely to endorse the housing advocates' proposal.
"We're not prepared to go as far as what they've asked for," said Steve Lafferty, deputy director of the department. "Ten to 20 percent is a significant jump."
In its high-density residential districts, the county's requirement for moderate income housing is 10 percent to 15 percent. Many of those districts are concentrated in the redeveloping Route 1 corridor. The county wants to define moderate income as a family of four making $32,800 to $65,600 annually.
County and housing advocates agree that more should be done to provide housing for those on the next economic rung, even two-income households, that are priced out of Howard's skyrocketing housing market. The average price of a detached, four-bedroom house in Howard last month was $624,055, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. The average price of a three-bedroom townhouse last month was $339,961.
With those prices, even a family of four with an annual income of $80,000 needs a break, said Hope, adding that the general rule is to spend about three times annual income for a home.
"What can you afford to buy, that's family housing, for $240,000?" she asked.
The county is drafting a proposal that would allow developers of high-density housing to shift some of their obligation from moderate income housing units to middle income housing. The county is proposing that the eligible range for a middle income family of four be $65,600 to $90,200 annually. Lafferty said the county had been working on those changes before the charette and wants to present them to the Planning Board and then the County Council for review later this year.
Despite that move, advocates say the county has been reluctant to aggressively pursue affordable housing as housing costs rise.
"I'm disappointed they haven't been more proactive," Hope said.
The Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing has unsuccessfully pushed Howard to adopt a requirement similar to Montgomery County's, in which moderate income housing is required in all residential districts, including single-family houses. Howard's moderate income housing requirements apply only to zoning districts for townhouses, apartments and condominiums.
"The political will hasn't been there for affordable housing to be a major issue in Howard County," said Ian Kennedy of the Howard County Citizens Association. "This is something we need to deal with comprehensively, with a slate of programs that complement each other."