A B-plus, but slipping Howard County: Urban expert Rusk grades Columbia and environs on anti-poverty efforts.

September 17, 1996

COLUMBIANS WENT to the local branch of the Johns Hopkins University School of Continuing Studies last week for a report card on their town's handling of low-income housing.

Distributing the grade was urban poverty expert David Rusk, author of "Cities Without Suburbs" and the controversial "Baltimore Unbound" report. Judging from his remarks, Columbia got a B-plus in dealing with poverty -- good, but a notch below its past performance.

Mr. Rusk praised Columbia founder James W. Rouse for creating a community 29 years ago that sought a mix of people from various socioeconomic backgrounds. Then he told his audience that the planned community had strayed from that vision in recent years. In constructing its newest villages, he said, Columbia was retreating from its original goal of housing people of all income levels.

A look at River Hill, the last of Columbia's 10 villages, gives credence to his criticism.

Most homes there cost $200,000 to more than $400,000. There is a paucity of housing for low-income families. The Rouse Co., developer of Columbia, blames the Howard County Council of the 1970s for not providing enough zoning for low-income homes. But it is surprising that with its clout in the county, the company was unable to persuade the council to provide more opportunities for low-income housing.

Already, Columbia's real estate prices make it unaffordable for many middle-class people who work in Howard. And a proposed "gated" community in Columbia's Town Center is a powerful symbol of class separation.

Mr. Rusk prefers Montgomery County's housing policies, which require developers to set aside 10 percent of homes for families earning $35,000 or less and 5 percent for public housing.

There was thin evidence that the 110 people at Hopkins' Columbia Center bought all the speaker's arguments. Mr. Rusk says Columbia and Howard County have not taken on their fair share of poverty, although he quickly adds that other outlying jurisdictions fare worse. The wealthy suburbs must do more to relieve the "critical mass" of poverty in Baltimore, he says. Indeed, Howard and its neighbors can and should play a larger role in easing poverty in the region.

Pub date: 9/17/96

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