What do we mean by “affordable housing” in Howard County? Are the right people controlling that decision?

From a purely social justice point of view, the supply of affordable units should depend on the number of families and individuals in need. Add to that the history of Columbia, where all types of housing were intermingled in an effort to consciously avoid housing segregation and to allow people to live near where they work.  We know what we need, but who is making those decisions? Progressive HoCo activist Dave Bazell explores need vs. greed.

 

/By Dave Bazell/ As I have discussed in previous blogs, one of the issues that Progressive HoCo is trying to push forward is affordable housing in the Howard County community.  I would like to talk about some specific issues facing Columbia right now with the hope that we can get a dialog going to find some solutions.

The Howard Hughes Corporation is the current master developer for Columbia.  Anyone who has been in Columbia in the past year can see the progress being made in the downtown area around the Mall.  I think that this development is generally a good idea because it brings businesses and residents to a central area in Columbia and is revitalizing this part of the town.  If this revitalization were not happening, the mall and surrounding areas would decline in desirability, as have several other neighborhoods in Columbia.  This would have a negative economic and social impact on Columbia and its residents.

That said, there are problems with the specifics of how the downtown development is being done, and having talked with a number of people, there is clearly a problem with the availability of affordable housing in the downtown area.  While the Howard Hughes Corporation says it is setting aside close to 15% of newly developed units for affordable housing, it is important to look closely at what constitutes affordable housing.

Some units will be made available to the lowest income individuals and families through the housing voucher program, also known as section 8 vouchers.  Others will be MIHU or Moderate Income Housing Units.  As of Jan 1, 2017, In Howard County a family of 3 had to be making less than $59,882 to qualify for MIHU rental units. 

Affordable housing is a rather complex issue, but it is worth trying to look at it from a reactively simple point of view, and look at some of the inconsistencies that have been put forward by the developer regarding affordable housing.  Howard Hughes Corporation, clearly has a plan:  they know how much office space they are building, how many rental apartments of what size they are building.  The details are all there because they have to know what they are going to construct before they break ground.

From a purely social justice point of view, the supply of affordable units should depend on the number of families and individuals in need. Add to that the history of Columbia, where all types of housing were intermingled in an effort to consciously avoid housing segregation and to allow people to live near where they work.  We see that the downtown development should contain a certain number of affordable units and should consider the number of low/moderate income families who are working in the area.  Given the master plan that Howard Hughes Corporation is working off of, they know what types of business and office units they are developing.  Therefore, they should be able to estimate the income level of the prospective residents.  At the lower end of the salary range there will be office workers, receptionists, restaurant workers, security guards, first responders, and many others.  The social history of Columbia demands that there be adequate housing for all these workers.

Nevertheless, the requirement of having 15% MIHU inclusionary zoning has been translated into multiple council bills and resolutions, obfuscating the issue to the benefit of the developer.  There appears to be a lack of political will to address the affordable housing issue in Columbia and Howard County.  As activists it is our responsibility to carry forward this moral fight and make our elected officials in the County take a stand on the affordable housing issue.  We have elections coming up in 2018 for County Executive and for four of our five council seats.  We need to make sure we, as County citizens, understand where these candidates stand on the issue of affordable housing.  And we need to make sure the candidates know where we stand.  We need to make it an issue in the upcoming elections.


Dave Bazell is a Progressive HoCo activist