Land, prices affect housing

Both stand in way of affordable units in downtown Columbia

May 30, 2007|BY A SUN REPORTER

Of the many complex issues involved in converting downtown Columbia into an urban center, none has provoked greater passion than the need to provide housing for low- and moderate-income families.

Unlike in some neighborhoods, one obstacle appears to have largely been overcome: public resistance. That is not surprising, because the spirit of the planned community has been economic and racial diversity.

But the dynamics that permitted the new town to rise from farmland four decades ago to embrace all have changed substantially, creating a more daunting task in ensuring that Columbia is not a bastion only for the affluent.

At the center of the problem in Columbia are swelling property and housing prices and the rapidly diminishing availability of land on which to build.

Those have combined to squeeze two critical segments: those needing work-force housing, such as teachers, and affordable units, for generally the low-income.

The need for a full spectrum of housing is greater today than it was when Columbia was envisioned, experts say.

"The need for work-force housing has grown to a crisis level that is not dissimilar to that for affordable housing for the first time in our country's history," said Kelly Cartales, senior vice president of Enterprise Community Partners Inc., which for a quarter-century has worked in many parts of the country to make housing accessible to needy families. "... The escalation in housing costs has created a new class of housing crisis."

Several civic organizations, including the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, have demanded that the final master plan for the area include housing for moderate- and low-income families.

And Douglas M. Godine, vice president and general manager of Mid-Atlantic operations of General Growth Properties Inc., the principal landowner in Columbia, has said the company's plan for downtown will include work-force housing.

"The secret ... is financing," Godine said recently. "How do you finance it because it's not a profit generator? It's a very, very difficult thing to understand and get our hands around."

While acknowledging the difficulty of the problem, Cartales said that those wrestling with the plan can still make meaningful progress in providing housing for all economic segments.

"You do it the good old American way, which is a very strategic balance of incentives and regulations," she said. "It's not one or the other."

Enterprise Community Partners, founded in 1982 by James W. and Patty Rouse as the Enterprise Foundation, is involved in several projects -- and launching others -- to address the housing need nationally, Cartales says.

The nonprofit organization, for instance, established a fund about two months ago, which it expects to reach $100 million over the next four or five years, to help developers provide housing for low- and moderate-income earners in Maryland, Northern Virginia and Washington.

There is no single answer to the problem, she says.

"People -- local governments, state governments, affordable-housing advocates, legislators -- are all looking for answers," Cartales said. "There is no silver bullet. But some of the more creative approaches combine new zoning requirements with the opportunity for different financial incentives."

Cartales said that those advocating housing for low- and moderate-income families should not be dismissed as simply "do-gooders."

"If people can't afford to live there, we're putting a strain on families," she said. "We're putting a strain on the transit systems. We're contributing to the demise of the environment."

The county's plan for downtown would authorize construction of 5,500 housing units, 3 million square feet of commercial offices and 750,000 square feet of additional retail space.

The Department of Planning and Zoning has said it will release a revised plan soon.

GGP, Godine has said, will use the county's figures as the foundation for its plan, which is expected in August.

A possible obstacle is the question of density. Several community leaders and County Executive Ken Ulman have voiced opposition to permitting an additional 5,500 housing units downtown. But others have argued that the lower the density, the fewer units for low- and moderate-income families.

Sherman Howell, one of the county's most ardent advocates for affordable housing, has said that without the density now proposed, it is misleading to suggest the county can make an appreciable addition to the housing stock for low- and middle-income families.

Without that density, he said recently, "you kill the deal" for redeveloping downtown because it will not be economical for the developers, who almost assuredly will be required to provide some of the road improvements and many of the community amenities that all sides concur are vital.

But Enterprise, Cartales said, also believes that society is improved by diversity.

"There's more and more support and evidence that mixed-income communities provide more viable economies in the long run," Cartales said. "Warehousing people in buildings and isolating them because they have less income -- it's not good for them, and it's not good for the rest of society.

"The unit of measure for being relevant in today's economy is the region, It's not the neighborhood. It's not the city. It's not the state. If you can be competitive at a regional level, then you can be competitive in a global marketplace. And ... if you're not providing quality housing that is affordable to people who need to work in jobs, we're not going to be competitive."

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