Housing advocates voiced disagreement and surprise over County Executive Ken Ulman's decision to make the Housing Commission the administrator of affordable housing funds in the at Monday's Howard County Council meeting.
The partnership is charged with marketing and collecting affordable housing and transportation funds for Downtown Columbia.
Previous legislation approved by the county council had asked that an independent nonprofit entity be established to administer the housing funds, which advocates said would total around $43 million. The funds would come from unit fees applied to new residences built in the downtown area.
"Granting this to the Housing Commission suggests business as usual," said Jackie Eng, president of the Association of Community Services.
Tim Sosinski, a representative from the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition, told the Council his group was disappointed when they learned the Housing Commission was granted the project in the legislation.
"We wondered if creating Monarch Mills downtown was what you had in mind?" asked Sosinski to the Council.
Sherman Howell, of the African-American Coalition of Howard County, called the decision to allow the Housing Commission to administer the fund a "travesty."
Alice Giles, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Howard County, said the legislation would take money out of the hands of advocates and put it into the hands of government.
The Council attempted to call a representative from the Housing Commission to testify, but none were present at Monday's hearing.
During the hearing, Council Member Calvin Ball commented on the Housing Commission's absence, "The oft talked about Housing Commission, it would have been nice to talk to them."
Mark Thompson, the director of redevelopment for the administration, said the County Executive's office chose the Housing Commission to administer the fund because they believed the already established entity would be able to quickly begin administering the funds.
"We came to the realization that we have an effective organization right here in the county that would very efficiently leverage what in fact are a limited amount of funds to the people that need it the most," said Thompson. "Rather than spend it on upfront organization, setting that up, finding experts; affordable housing is a very complicated business."
Council Member Courtney Watson said after the meeting that the Council had previously decided the funds would go to a nonprofit independent entity in Council Bill 58.
"I think the administration feels strongly that it should go to the Housing Commission," said Watson. "But I think you'll see an amendment to change that."
During a break in the Council meeting, advocates said a more nimble independent housing nonprofit could better administer the funds over what they described as a bulky, bureaucratic Housing Commission.
Problems with the structure of the partnership
Also discussed at Monday's meeting were problems with the makeup of the Downtown Columbia Partnership. As currently written, the bill would create a seven-member board of directors for the partnership consisting of four members of Howard Hughes Corp. (the primary developer), the county executive, the Columbia Association president and the manager of the Mall in Columbia.
By giving Howard Hughes four seats, the legislation would also give them a quorum on the board.
"Essentially you're giving control of the partnership to Howard Hughes," said Alan Klein, a spokesperson for the coalition for Columbia's downtown. "That doesn't sound like much of a partnership to us."
Thompson said that because Howard Hughes is paying for the initial start-up costs of the partnership, they were given a majority on the board until 500,000 square feet of development is built. After that, two more board members would be chosen by the county executive, according to the legislation.
Linda Wengel, the vice-chair of the Town Center Community Association board of directors, asked the council to mandate that one of those two members chosen by the county executive be a resident of Town Center.
John Taylor, of Highland, took issue with a number of provisions of the partnership. He told the council he was "appalled" that the parternship wouldn't be governed by the County Charter, the county ethics laws or the county purchasing code.
"God almight what are you thinking?" asked Taylor.
For their part, the council informed Taylor they hadn't written the legislation.
Thompson said the administration chose not to put the partnership under the ethics policy because that would require members of the board to have no financial interest in the downtown development. He said that was completely contrary to what the partnership is all about, especially for the Howard Hughes employees who are planning on making a profit off the development.
However, the legislation requires the partnership to establish ethical guidelines in their by-laws, according to Thompson.
"That piece of it is effectively dealt with," said Thompson.
As for the charter and purchasing code, he said the partnership will not be a local government.
"It's not even close to being applicable," said Thompson. "It is not a local government."
The council is scheduled to work on the bill during work sessions on June 21 and June 25 at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.