Moderate housing advances

Robey vows Columbia Town Center's revival will include `affordable' units

December 18, 2005|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

Plans for urbanizing Columbia's Town Center must include moderate-income housing, according to Howard County Executive James N. Robey, whose administration is crafting a rezoning proposal for the project.

"I think there should be affordable housing in Town Center. This will not be an exclusive area for the rich," Robey told a lunchtime audience of about 50 Association of Community Services members Friday after a question from state Del. Elizabeth Bobo.

Bobo said that although no percentages were mentioned, Robey's comments are important.

"I think it's worth a lot. I was glad to hear him say that," she said, noting that some people have said land and housing is so expensive that anything but upscale housing might be impossible. For instance, a 22-story high- rise planned to begin construction next year near the Columbia lakefront will feature prices from $500,000 to more than $1 million per unit.

Robey said that although low-income housing might not be economically possible, he will reject any plan that does not include moderate-income units.

In other remarks, Robey also derided public prejudice against affordable housing that he has encountered from some residents.

"You're allowing `those people' to move into our community" is the complaint he has heard, he said.

"To me, those people are cops and teachers, mechanics, carpenters and plumbers," said Robey, who spent 32 years in the Police Department, including seven as its chief, in his native Howard County.

With median home prices in Howard now over $400,000, county officials and housing advocates have been struggling to find ways to include people who earn $35,000 to $60,000 (considered moderate-income) in the mix of buyers. Robey's administration is working on a bill that would expand the range of subsidized housing to include a "middle-income" bracket for families making up to $110,000 a year.

General Growth, the company that will develop Town Center, has not opposed the idea of lower- priced housing, but a struggle could come over the amount.

Andre J. DeVerneil, a leader of the Coalition for Affordable Housing that has pushed for moderate- income housing in Town Center, said his group wants 10 percent moderate-income and 10 percent middle-income. General Growth has talked about designating 10 percent of the 2,000 to 5,000 living units expected to be built over the next several decades as lower-cost housing.

DeVerneil said the issue was left "vague" after the weeklong planning charrette in October, though he said most participants appeared to support the concept of below-market housing.

"This is just a golden opportunity," and perhaps the last to include lower-priced housing in a large housing development in Howard County, DeVerneil said.

Robey's position appears to have bipartisan support on the County Council.

Councilman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who attended the luncheon at the Meeting House in Oakland Mills, said he would like to see 15 percent of new housing below market prices, but he would also vote for 20 percent.

"I won't vote for anything less than 10 percent," Guzzone said. Councilman Ken Ulman, a Democrat who represents the area, was not at the luncheon but said later that although current zoning does not require it, "work-force housing has been a part of every discussion about a Town Center plan. I think we're all onboard."

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, also did not attend the luncheon, but he said he agrees.

"If we're going to give General Growth the added density, a component of that must have moderate- or middle-income housing requirements," Merdon said.

William Ross, a county housing commission member and advocate of lower-priced housing, pressed Robey about providing below-market units throughout the county, but Robey rejected that.

"You need high density to make it work," Robey said, noting that many residents oppose more units per acre. Land in the western county can't achieve that density without public water and sewer, and it is too expensive for moderate-income homes, the executive said.

Robey said his years as a police officer "pretty much showed me everything there was to see about human suffering." That experience made him a strong supporter of the kind of work done by the 150 social service agencies that operate under the organizational umbrella of ACS.

"There are huge needs out there," Robey said.

Bobo also asked him about helping to pay health insurance for the babies of legal immigrant women cut off by Ehrlich administration budget cuts.

"I hate picking up funding for federal and state programs. It really ticks me off," Robey said, acknowledging, however, that sometimes local government must fill a void.

Bobo acknowledged that "the state should ante up. These children -- they're citizens," she said.

And since Howard County and the state of Maryland are among the nation's most prosperous places, something should be done, Bobo said.

"It seems like in Howard County, if we don't take care of our legal immigrant women, where else in the country can we do it?" she said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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