Columbia’s Downtown and Affordable Housing (The Villager 2016-8)

Columbia’s Downtown and Affordable Housing

By Chao Wu

The article will be published on the August 2016’s River Hill Monthly Journal “The Villager”

The Howard County community is debating legislative changes impacting affordable housing in downtown Columbia.  The implementation of any changes will have a long-lasting impact on Columbia’s downtown and our county’s future. Therefore, it is important for there to be careful consideration by the decision-makers and for the community to understand the pros and cons of the changes being considered. The Columbia Association’s Board of Directors has been hearing presentations from all sides and will ask CA staff to testify in front of the County Council to relay the CA Board’s positions in August.

There are two proposals in front of the County Council that amend the current legislation governing affordable housing as Columbia’s downtown is further developed.

Joint Proposal

One is the joint proposal mainly developed by Howard County Government and Howard Hughes Corporation (Columbia’s master developer). In this proposal, the parking requirement is greatly reduced, the housing density in downtown will be increased (from 5500 total units to 6400 total units), and a public financing scheme called tax increment finance (TIF) of $170 million will be implemented. Tax increment financing (TIF) is a public financing method that is used as a subsidy for redevelopment. Through the use of TIF, the county government will divert future property tax revenue from this Downtown Development to Howard Hughes for its willingness to take responsibility for ensuring the development of affordable housing. Howard Hughes will have a 40-year binding rights under Development Rights and Responsibilities Agreement such that no future legislation can change this proposed Downtown development plan.

In the joint proposal, the affordable housing units are proposed for the following locations: 100 at the Banneker Fire Station, 100 at Toby’s Dinner Theater, 150 at the existing library site, 90 units at a temporary fire station and 60 at the transit center. These units will be mixed with market rate units. Since the 900 units in downtown currently under construction do not offer affordable housing, another 5,500 units (the original number of units proposed in the 2010 Columbia Downtown Development Plan) are being proposed. This will make the total number of units 6,400. The Central Library, currently under renovation, will ultimately be replaced by housing units. A new library location has not been determined.

Jen Terrasa’s Proposal

The second proposal has been submitted by Councilwomen Jen Terrasa (District 3). This proposal requires 15 percent of Howard Hughes’ or any other developer’s units to be affordable. It ensures that downtown Columbia develops with a full spectrum of housing options as envisioned in the Downtown Columbia Plan (2010).

Advocates for the joint proposal want to make sure the housing will happen sooner by giving Howard Hughes financial incentives provided by TIF and binding the company to an agreement that requires a specific number of affordable housing units are built. Advocates for the Terrasa proposal support the simplicity of the proposal and argue TIF is only used to help the revitalization of blighted or economically depressed areas, which Columbia’s downtown area is not.

Here are my thoughts on the affordable housing in downtown after reading and reading all available materials.

Total Units for Downtown

I believe there is a need to have a cap on the total units developed over the next 40 years. Columbia has been a planned community from the start when Jim Rouse envisioned this new city. Without a cap, we can not plan the infrastructure accordingly. Having a set number of housing units will require any proposed future increase be considered in an open and public process. This is a good planning tool and is needed to ensure Columbia remains a planned community.

The county has been waiving the affordable housing requirement (usually 10%-15%) for developers in other parts of Howard County. Developers do not like to build affordable units because they will make less profit. The 900 downtown housing units currently under construction have no affordable units built as originally proposed as part of the 5,500 total units. That is the reason the joint proposal will give another 5,500 units to Howard Hughes.  I am concerned that if this happens again, the developer will simply say we could not achieve the affordable housing goal after 6,400 units are built, and the county will probably simply agree to increase the total unit number.

Density for Downtown

I believe that increasing the density for downtown in order to achieve affordable housing is reasonable. It is in the best interest of our community to have people who work in Columbia and Howard County able to afford to live here.

Affordable Housing Distribution

Others in the community debate that there are too many affordable housing units located in downtown or Columbia. The following data were obtained from CA board chair Andy Stack’s paper shared on my website. Howard County has 1,337 Section 8 vouchers and of these 1,068 are located in Columbia, which is 80%.

Howard County has 1,260 units of Section 8 Project-Based Housing and 1,154 (92%) of them are in Columbia. (If Monarch Mills, which is located on Oakland Mills Road just outside of Columbia’s boundaries, is included, then 1,191 (95%) are in the Columbia area.

Howard County has 1,646 units that receive the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit ( LIHTC) and 372 (23%)  units, or 451 (27%) if Monarch Mills included, are in Columbia. So Columbia has 2710 units (Section 8 + LIHTC) of the total 4245 units of Howard County, which is  over 64%.

Considering that only 33% percent of the population of the whole county is in Columbia, I believe there is room for the affordable housing to be reasonably distributed around the county.

40 year Binding Agreement

I am concerned about the 40-year binding agreement with Howard Hughes. Yes, it ensures stability for Howard Hughes, but I believe it will be a problem for Columbia in the long term. It prevents our future legislators from making reasonable changes if needed. We must admit, nobody can accurately foresee Columbia’s development in 40 years.

Better Planning of Infrastructure

The Downtown Columbia Partnership estimated the following improvements to the infrastructure are needed to accommodate the downtown’s growth: a new elementary school ($30 million), a new fire station ($30 million), a new library ($40 million), a new arts center ($20 million), traffic improvement ($75 million), a new transit center ($9.5 million) and a new parking garage for Merriweather Post Pavilion ($50 million). The total is $254.5 million. Note, the TIF for Howard Hughes is estimated to total $170 million. I think more infrastructure should be proposed: another elementary school ($30 million), a new middle school ($60 million), a new high school ($180 million), a new hospital ($200 million). That is another $370 million. So total new spending for Columbia Downtown can easily top $1 billion.

Howard County Public Schools have been overcrowded and need money for upgrades and expansion. When we plan for the new Downtown, we should prepare enough schools, hospitals and roads to accommodate this change. It is always better to plan earlier, clearer and with careful financial considerations.

If you want to share your thoughts, please come to a CA Board meeting, county meetings, or email me.  The county council is expected to vote in September on the proposed legislation.

Chao Wu, Ph.D.

River Hill Representative to Columbia Council

Columbia Association Board of Directors

Email:  Website:

Disclaimer: This letter only represents Dr. Chao Wu’s personal opinion. It does not represent River Hill Board of Directors nor Columbia Association’s Board.

Columbia Downtown Future

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