Housing plan tied to fate of pending bill

Measure would allow builders to separate subsidized, upscale units

April 23, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

A proposed 99-unit apartment building in Ellicott City would represent the first use of a pending County Council bill to allow builders to construct moderate-income housing away from their upscale primary developments.

The county's Housing Commission and Housing and Community Development Board have approved the building, which is intended for a combination of senior citizens and the families of civil servants - perhaps teachers - said Jared Spahn, the builder. Spahn said the building would contain extra environmental and recreational design features similar to those at Waverly Gardens, a recently opened moderate-income seniors apartment house in Waverly Woods built by him and developer Donald R. Reuwer Jr.

The county commission and board met jointly at Waverly Gardens and toured the facility last week. The Housing Commission would own 49 percent of the $15 million project, if it is built, in return for a $2 million low-interest loan and an option to eventually buy the property, said Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director.

The new four-story building would have one- and two-bedroom apartments in a building with underground parking to be called Ellicott Gardens. It would be built on 4 acres on Route 108, north of Falls Run Road.

The combined housing groups also OK'd an 80-unit, moderate-income building for seniors at Emerson, the expensive General Growth Properties Inc. development along Route 216.

That building, expected to begin accepting residents in about two years, is to be built by Shelter Group, which specializes in senior housing, said Douglas M. Godine, General Growth's general manager for Columbia. It would be called Parkview at Emerson.

Vaughan had pushed for family housing for Emerson's moderate-income housing, but he said, "We don't have any choice."

General Growth is providing moderate-income units voluntarily because the number of units per acre for Emerson is too low to trigger the county law requiring a percentage of subsidized units. Godine said General Growth had no preference, but Shelter Group wanted to build senior units. "We weren't going to disturb their goals here," he said.

Vaughan noted that in return for a $700,000 loan from the commission, the project will have 80 units, not the planned 60.

Ellicott Gardens would feature rental apartments that the Housing Commission expects to own in 15 years, Vaughan said.

The project represents a key feature of a proposed law that would change the county's moderate-income housing program - the ability to move subsidized homes away from developers' expensive new communities or pay a cash fee to absolve them of the obligation. Developers are seeking the change in the law.

The construction of Ellicott Gardens is linked to the fate of the bill, which is scheduled for a County Council work session discussion at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and a vote May 1.

Spahn's project would serve as a receiving site for moderate-income units from other projects, Vaughan said. If the bill is approved, developers who convince county housing officials that moderate-income units won't work in their primary developments could pay Spahn to locate them in Ellicott Gardens. Under the proposed law, builders who take that option would have to supply more moderate-income units than otherwise required, giving the county a bonus.

"We recognize that Howard County doesn't work unless we can find places for teachers and gas station workers," Spahn said. "We're trying to accomplish something that's beneficial to everybody," noting that under the proposed law, county government would have the final say over whether moderate-income units could be moved away from the primary project site.

Developers argue that because of housing inflation since 2000, they can no longer build identical homes selling at the county's moderate-income price of $158,700 for a townhouse amid units selling for $700,000 and more. Higher property taxes and condominium fees for those units make them unaffordable for moderate-income buyers, and the county has begun encouraging more rental apartments.

Vaughan has advocated returning to an older model - entire communities of lower-priced, smaller homes and apartments on separate parcels. But some housing advocates and County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, have worried that the new ideas could lead to economically segregated communities.

"This way, we get more units and the possibility of making them affordable in perpetuity," Vaughan said. "It helps us get units that are affordable for a longer period of time than if they're for-sale units."

Housing board and commission members said they like the Ellicott Gardens project.

"I think that the combination of elderly residents and families in one building is desirable. We're supportive of that concept," said commission member William A. Ross Sr.

"I'm delighted to hear that we might have some moderate-priced housing for families. That would be grand," said Nancy M. Rhead, vice chairwoman of the county's Housing and Community Development Board.

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