With a final Howard County Council vote scheduled Monday on rezoning downtown Columbia for three decades of urban-style redevelopment, advocates for housing affordable to low-wage workers feel their hopes for a last-minute compromise are in peril.
The council met again Friday to discuss various last-minute options for providing at least some housing for lower income people.
The council briefly discussed their ideas at a nearly five-hour work session Monday night, but members appear ready to adopt a requirement that builders provide at least 15 percent of new units for households with incomes under about $80,000 -- too high, the advocates said, to meet the real need.
Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, praised the ideas for low-income housing, but said the original bill had no provision for any lower priced housing, so the 15 percent standard is a big improvement and it matches the standard in force throughout Howard County.
What is needed, she said, is a later policy review of the entire Moderate Income Housing Unit program.
"I think something will happen," Sigaty said. "Whatever decision we make, we ought to be committed as a council to look at the housing code."
At several council hearings, many speakers supported the 15 percent moderate income proposal.
East Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball tried to soothe hurt feelings.
"A lot of good, well-intentioned people put a lot of effort into this," he said.
But Grace Kubofcik, president of the county's League of Women Voters chapter and a key leader in a group called the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition, was discouraged.
"We didn't have a discussion of housing policy tonight," she said while leaving the meeting. "What we had was a rehearsed questioning of the housing department."
Kubofcik said her group had been negotiating with the Ulman administration to back a compromise zoning amendment to provide at least some apartments for lower income people, but could not win an endorsement, though county housing director Stacy Spann told the council members that the coalition's "concept was great."
Jessica Feldmark, county Executive Ken Ulman's chief of staff, said there were not enough votes on the five-member council for the proposals to pass. Developer General Growth Properties officials have said that they fear the cost of low-income housing might endanger the economics of the whole project.
Kubofcik and her allies, including the leaders of several social services and housing nonprofits, the African American Coalition of Howard County and the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, said they now hold out little hope.
"We had a tremendous opportunity to be creative," said Roy Appletree, a member of the housing group. Instead, he said, "we came out with a plain vanilla 15 percent."
The coalition wanted Columbia to return to the original vision of founder James W. Rouse that Columbia would be economically diverse enough for a CEO and a janitor to live in the same area.
The groups felt the downtown project -- which promises up to 5,500 new residential units, 4.3 million square feet of office space, 1.25 million square feet of retail, hotels and a transit-oriented environment for those without cars -- was the perfect, and the only, place in Howard County where that might be possible. But Rouse's original plan for thousands of low-rent homes faded over time as federal housing subsidies declined.
Grace Morris, director of Columbia Housing, which manages more than 300 homes and apartments for low-income people built in Columbia's first years, said her waiting list is over 500 long, and current residents are stuck because there's nothing in the county they can afford on their own.
"Housing needs to be available and offered to all who want to live and work in this county," Kubofcik said.
"The council kicks the housing can down the road," said Tim Sosinski, an architect who as a member of the coalition pushed for a place in the new urban center for people making less than $40,000 a year. After five years of discussion, he said, council members somehow feel there's not enough time.
During the meeting, however, council members heard from deputy county solicitor Paul Johnson that the housing code would have to be revised to provide alternatives to the zoning requirements for homes that higher-income working families can afford under the current program. That code review could come later, after adoption of downtown rezoning, members suggested, but not now, with just a few days before the council's scheduled vote.
At the council work session, members also reviewed 19 possible amendments to the two zoning bills, including one containing a list of more than 20 cultural and other amenities, ranging from a downtown circulator transit bus to standards for public art and the future of Merriweather Post Pavilion.
One potential amendment would shift more commercial construction to an earlier phase of the project to guarantee more tax revenue for the county.
Members also sought reassurance that the amendments would make the county's goals and safeguards for the plan enforceable under the law, and that the county's wastewater treatment plant can handle the new project.
Even after the final zoning votes Monday, the council's work won't be done. Planning director Marsha McLaughlin said new traffic congestion standards to regulate a more urban downtown would have to be adopted later this year, and the housing code would also need revisions once the zoning is passed.
Sigaty said other details -- like the mechanism for paying for public art at new buildings -- may also need separate legislation.
But after Monday's vote and before the new legislation is submitted, Sigaty said, she has another priority.
"I'm taking a vacation in February."