Tuesday, June 30, 2015

RENEW Columbia

Local news-watchers may experience a slight unsteadiness at the words "RENEW Howard" after the program was introduced last summer, defunded this winter, reintroduced two weeks ago, and rescinded last Friday.  Amanda Yeager did a great job explaining the complicated program in her coverage last week:
RENEW HOWARD – an acronym for Revitalizing Neighborhoods EveryWhere in Howard County – would leverage Howard County Housing Commission bonds to provide some $20 million in loans for Howard County homebuyers who want to renovate or expand an aging house or townhouse.
The council created a similar program last summer as part of a multi-pronged housing bill that prohibited new affordable housing development in areas of the county where the poverty rate is greater than 10 percent. Part of that legislation broadened the guidelines for an existing loan program, the Housing and Community Development Rehabilitation Loan Fund, to allow loans for home expansions and renovations in addition to essential infrastructure repairs.
To oversimplify this further, the program helps families already living in Howard County (mostly Columbia) improve the existing housing stock, build equity in their homes, and do so with (presumably) more favorable loans than may otherwise be available.

Under the proposal, the Housing Commission would have sold $2 million in bonds to leverage an additional $20 million in bank loans, which would then be available to program participants for qualified improvements.  The controversy arises when it comes to the annual $250,000 in debt service, which would be paid with 50% of the revenue collected from MIHU (Moderate Income Housing Unit) fee in lieu payments.  Based on Amanda's coverage, certain housing advocates expressed concern regarding this use of MIHU fees as opposed to the construction of actual housing units with the money.

I hope the County gives this program another chance.  In fact, I hope the County comes back with an even better program that would offer grants in place of loans.  Howard Hughes is in the process of making one of the largest investments in Howard County we've seen in my lifetime.  A $20 million grant fund to help low to moderate income families already living in Howard County share that investment would do wonders for our five decade old neighborhoods.

As currently proposed (or whatever you would describe the current posture of the RENEW Program -pro-pergatorated?), I am concerned that we would see a large portion of the $20 million sit unused.  If the families targeted by this program are anything like me, they are hesitant to take on addition debt on top of student loans and existing mortgages.  That's not to say it isn't a "smart investment" or that a program like this couldn't be marketed in such a way that would see it fully utilized, but I think even its strongest advocates would admit it is a half-measure.

But whether the RENEW Program is brought back as is, or with an additional grant component, this is a good program for Howard County, particularly at this point in our development.  We should want, and encourage, families to invest here and we shouldn't stop wanting that once they move in.

Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!