Village says it's tired of subsidized housing


October 14, 2007|By LARRY CARSON

Howard County Council Chairman Calvin Ball ran into a verbal buzz saw from about three dozen Oakland Mills residents who attended a Village Board meeting last week to hear him explain three seemingly innocuous housing bills he sponsored this month.

The resentment surfaced despite positive news in Oakland Mills in recent years. Construction is about to begin on a new office-retail building next to the village center, filling a vacant lot where a gas station once stood, and four large, upscale, detached homes are being built a block away- the kind of high-priced development the village residents say they want.

The Oakland Mills Village Board said it opposes Ball's three measures unless they are changed to exempt the village from more subsidized housing. The bills are due for review at a public hearing tomorrow night in the council's Ellicott City chambers.

One bill would give county employees, dislocated U.S. 1 residents and low-income workers preference for moderate-income units that become available. Another would require apartment complex owners to notify tenants and county housing officials if they want to sell their property. The third would give the county a chance to establish a few more moderate-income units in complexes being converted to condominiums. Current law requires owners to reserve 20 percent of such conversion units for existing renters, but if any units remain vacant, Ball's bill would give the county a chance to fill them with moderate-income families.

All three bills have support from the four council Democrats and were inspired by recommendations from last year's Howard County Task Force on Affordable Housing. They are among 10 bills and resolutions dealing with the often-emotional issue of affordable housing before the council this month.

But the crowd of longtime village residents told Ball in no uncertain terms that they feel threatened by what they regard as too much subsidized housing, and too many apartments around the Oakland Mills Village Center. They want Ball, a former Oakland Mills revitalization officer and village board member, to find a way to exempt their area from any more limited-income housing. Put it in River Hill, Columbia's newest village, which has none, several speakers said to general applause.

"There has to be an equitable distribution throughout the county," said David Hamilton. Dan Singer said he's worried that the Grande Point (formerly Tor) apartments nearby could be sold and the 328 units could be purchased by the county Housing Commission and converted from market-rate to subsidized housing. The village center is ringed by apartments, several speakers said, and in their view, too many offer below-market rents.

Barbara Russell, the village's Columbia Association board member, said two-thirds of the county has no subsidized housing, while Oakland Mills has more than its share. What Oakland Mills needs, she said, is more high-end housing.

Russell is advocating what until now has been political heresy in Howard: allowing public water and sewer lines west of the current boundary to permit more townhouses and apartments to be built farther west. The ban on public utilities in the western county was meant to preserve farmland, she said, but instead of doing that, it has merely allowed hundreds of large homes on 3-acre lots.

"I think we should look at where else in the county we can develop housing of any kind," she said.

Ball said he agreed with the residents' general point about their village but that his bills are merely small efforts to promote moderate-income housing, which the Oakland Mills residents said they support, too - as a countywide goal.

"Your focus is on Oakland Mills. My focus is countywide," Ball said, noting that he knows of no new units coming to Oakland Mills.

County Housing Director Stacy L. Spann said later, "I think their fears are unfounded." The county is not considering buying Grand Pointe, he said, adding that apartments in Howard generally sell for $100,000 a unit - far more than the Housing Commission could ever afford. Besides, buying a market-rate complex and converting it to subsidized status is "contrary to what we're doing."

Spann is in the process of redeveloping the 100 percent- subsidized, county-owned Guilford Gardens development farther south into a mixed-income project.

At the meeting, Ball also defended his bill to require notice if apartment owners want to sell their property. "I would think it's a good thing for us to know if something is selling before it is sold," he said.

He urged people to put Oakland Mills in perspective and realize that the village has no more subsidized housing than Wilde Lake, Harper's Choice or the U.S. 1 corridor.

But Bill McCormack, who heads the village's revitalization committee housing group, suggested that Ball create a new bill that exempts places like Oakland Mills - or any area with large groups of children in neighborhood schools who get free or reduced-price lunches - from any added subsidized housing.

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