Give the Verona Apartments sale a chance

verona-at-oakland-mills-apartments-columbia-maryland-21045-650X430-103548851Lemme be honest with you about something: I didn’t pay attention to this issue at first because quite frankly I didn’t care. But something bugged me about it once I heard a few things. And let’s face it, when there is talk about subsidized housing more than likely it involves my people so I guess I can put my thinking cap on for a minute.

The Verona Apartments in Oakland Mills is about to be sold to the Howard County Housing Commission. Many residents in OM are up in arms about it because 1. they believe the sale will bring more subsidized housing to the village (and they have more than enough of that already). 2. They were not made aware of the sale until very late.  John DiTomasso’s letter to the Columbia Flier kinda explained about how residents were kept in the dark about the sale. I’m sure there are some other reasons for this bruhaha but let’s start here.

I did a little bit of digging and got a few answers.

1. This sale won’t exactly bring more subsidized housing to the area. The vacancy rate in the complex is low right now. The Verona is currently operating with 80 percent of the units paying market rate prices. Hopefully they will stay that way (personally I wouldn’t want to include more below market value units. How are you going to make any money that way?)

2. The Housing Commission is not obligated to publicize the sale. It’s a private sale. The current owner made the Commission pinky swear not to tell anyone that they were buying the property.  Yeah, I know.  That sounds sneaky to me too but apparently that’s how things work in the housing biz. Shake your fist at the owners for keeping you in the dark if you want Mr. DiTomasso.

3. It’s better to have a property owner be based locally than one that is located far away. When companies buy properties long-distance it becomes a royal pain in the neck to get them to give a crap about the property. The residents pay the rent so the company isn’t very vigilant about upkeep and responding to resident concerns. At least this way you know who the Commission is and where they operate. You can go raise holy hell right at their desk if you don’t get some r-e-s-p-e-c-t.

It has also come to my attention that when the Howard County Housing Commission takes over a property and manages it, good things happen. It’s evident in Monarch Mills and Burgess Mills which impressively went from drab to fab. In 10 years, the Commission plans to redevelop the Verona in the same way which would be GREAT for Oakland Mills.

Now plans are one thing but actions are another. As far as how this will play out, we will have to wait and see. Is it really easy for mixed income communities to drop their guards, join in a circle and sing Kumbayah together? Not necessarily. It will take some work for mixed income communities to truly blend and bond.  There are a few issues that the low income residents will have to deal with and they may interrupt the bonding process.  For example, employment can be a problem for low income residents. Being in a great neighborhood with higher income neighbors won’t get them out of poverty and that’s the goal isn’t it? They will need support and training to help them elevate their employment status from job to career. The other goal is to move low income people from renters to buyers. Home ownership is the ultimate goal (or at least it should be in my opinion). While living next to home owners is nice and possibly inspiring, low income residents need to see that this can happen for them too. Who’s introducing them to the programs that are available to first time home buyers? Who is helping them with things like credit repair and budget planning if needed? Chew on that for a spell.  Also, you have to give the residents some kinda reason to interact. It is so easy to go in and out of your home and never interact with your neighbors except at the mailbox (ask me how I know this). What about some community projects that will help build community spirit and help subsidized housing residents feel a little more invested in the community? Yes this is deeper than just pay your rent and don’t trash the front yard and loiter.

There are a few theories out there that suggest that mixed income housing can accomplish a few things such as expanding social networks which can in turn help with job searches.  Some people speculate that living around higher income earners will promote some kind of social change and low income people will somehow rise to the occasion. Some others say that the children will see better “role models”  around them and be exposed to alternative lifestyles.  I even hear and personally believe to some extent that living around higher-income people brings about a certain political influence that will demand a better quality of services and amenities in a neighborhood. Some of these theories are total bull and subtly racist while others might just hit the nail on the head. I’ll leave that for you to decide.

For all you nerds out there, there is plenty of research that suggests that mixed income housing projects can work.

Click here to read the study for the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Center

Click here to read some success stories of mixed income communities in Connecticut.

In yesterday’s Washington Post there was an interesting article about mixed income housing in the very chic Capitol Hill section. That area is highly sought after and yet they seem to make it work. Read that.

And click here to read a very good study of mixed income housing with the HOPE VI Program funding.

What I’m trying to say through all my ramblings is give it a chance you Oakland Millers. Don’t be so quick to pull out your torches, tar, and feathers when you hear that one of your buildings is suddenly up for sale. I understand that subsidized housing can cause some anxiety but knowing the facts might alleviate a few fears. Wanna totally relax? Get involved and work tirelessly to build community ties with all the residents so that they all feel invested in the village. Move beyond your prejudice and get to know your neighbors. In due time you can reap the rewards that many Howard Countians strive for; higher property values, exclusivity, more political clout and a Starbucks on every corner.


12 thoughts on “Give the Verona Apartments sale a chance

  1. I appreciate your plea for sanity and understand how you could feel that way. Unfortunately, the area where this is happening is nothing like a chic area of Capitol Hill, and it does not meet most of the criteria for places where mixed income housing would work, according to my research into many of the same studies you identify and many more.

    In fact, in its review of Howard County housing policy, “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Cholce”, HUD identifies the census tract in which this complex is located as an “impact area” in which additional subsidized housing should NOT be built. HUD identifies Howard County’s tendency to concentrate affordable housing in certain areas as one of the impediments to fair housing in the county. The census tract is identified as “impacted” in more measures than any other census tract in the county. Indeed in one of the measures, it is the ONLY census tract in Howard County to be so designated. The complex in question literally surrounds an apartment complex that is 100% subsidized very low income housing.

    The schools to which these children would be assigned have the highest level of poverty of any schools in the county. These schools also have high levels of student turnover, which makes progress very difficult, even though the teachers and community have gone above and beyond to really embrace and support these families.

    I personally have devoted most of the last 15 years to volunteering in the community. Much of the time it was almost a full-time, unpaid job. I love my community, and I believe that it DOES embrace people of all races, incomes, and nationalities. However, it has become very stressed. There are too many people who need help and support and not enough who are able to give it.

    I find it appalling that in the richest county in the nation we should have schools in which over 60% of the students qualify for free and reduced meals (that is the current year’s %, so you won’t find it on the website from last year), where kids are playing on rusty old equipment because the PTA can’t afford to buy new and the county doesn’t deem to provide it. Is this the opportunity we want to give to our children?

    I don’t mean to rant, but I am concerned that people think this is all about keeping out a “certain type of people”. But it’s not. It’s about a county policy that is contributing to increasing the gap between the rich and the poor. It allows builders to “buy out” of including subsidized housing in their complexes so the money can be used to build or buy in other areas of the county. I bet you can guess which areas don’t have affordable areas included and which areas that money is redirected to.

    • Wow!! Just when I think no one reads my posts….BOOM a great reply comes in. Thanks for the “rant” and feel free to do so anytime. I learn a lot from replies.

      I was under the impression that the Commission has no intention of raising the amount of subsidized housing in that complex but simply take over ownership and possibly making improvements like the others. Do you think they will increase the number of subsidized units in the Verona?

  2. The commission will raise the amount of subsidized housing by a small amount. It is currently 15% through the use of Section 8 vouchers. The commission will raise it to 20%. Any improvements they make will be minor. They are keeping the same management team. So, no improvements planned. Indeed, the apartments were just recently remodeled and are in good shape. Their main goal is to “preserve an existing housing resource that is affordable to working families in Howard County. If sold to private ownership, rents would likely rise significantly” according to the Housing Director’s Report. While that’s a fabulous and necessary goal for the county as a whole, I’m not so sure it’s a good goal for that particular area.

    I can see the value of having a landlord that is local and accessible, so that might be good. The county doesn’t have a good long-term record of managing their rental properties, although that seems to have improved considerably in the last few years.

    The long-term plan, however, is to convert the apartments in 10 years to a mixed-income development that would increase density and include 20-40% subsidized units. However, the situation is very different from Monarch Mills. There, the county tore down a poorly managed, fully subsidized low income project that was in terrible shape (the county had been managing it for years) and replaced it with a new mixed-income, basically stand-alone development. Here they would build a mixed income complex literally surrounding (because Verona is divided into two parts), not replacing, a very low income complex. I think that is a very different scenario, and the world being what it is, not as likely to work. Even Monarch Mills is having problems maintaining occupancy in its market rate apartments.

    I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe this is the best thing and I just don’t recognize it. I just feel that the issues in my community are not being acknowledged. The county keeps saying we have no more low-income housing or poverty than anywhere else. Excuse me, how many other schools have that rate of poverty? My concern is that we are creating pockets of poverty in Howard County at the expense of those who can least afford it to the benefit of those who have the most. People living in the surrounding houses (which are among the most affordable in Howard County, therefore largely occupied by people living on the financial edge) will see their housing values decline. I see Howard County as reflecting the entire country’s increasing divide between the rich and the poor, and that angers and frustrates me.

    I will say that I dread the upcoming meeting about the issue. People will say nasty and painful things, fears will burst forth, and accusations will be hurled as people try to express their complex feelings in 25 words or less. So I truly value this opportunity to express my views. Thank you.

  3. Ladies, I want to thank you both for your thoughtful discussion and respect for differing points of view. Karen, as a member of the community and a teacher at a local school, I share many of the concerns that you voiced. I’m trying to do some research of my own before this upcoming meeting and found your link very helpful. So thank you again.

  4. Pingback: Getting local: Oakland Mills, the Verona Apartments and you! | HoCoBlogs in the Community

  5. If you saw the Washington Post this weekend you would of seen an article about the super communities (super zip codes) in the DC area. The map showed Columbia surrounded by these super zip codes to the south, west and north, A few years ago I testified on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce and the HCEDA at council meeting about a bill that would allow Maple Lawn to move their affordable housing to Route 1 (Elkridge area), I had seen River Hill developed without a full range of housing and the thought of another community going that way was wrong for Howard County. At the hearing they listened to my testimony and asked questions but in the end they allowed developers to ship their affordable housing to somewhere esle. If the Howard County Housing Commission is going to buy housing then let them start with appartments in Maple Lawn and River Hill. Columbia’s message needs to be spread to these super zip code in our County.

    • Oh Brian!! Thanks for that insight. You are so on point with that. I have thought about the lack of affordable housing in River Hill for a long time. Buying apartments over there would be a great way to show how they are truly committed to spreading diversity across the county. I don’t know if apartments in River Hill or Maple Lawn are for sale right now but if they are this would be a great moment for the Commission to buy and diversify. (Personally, if I were an apartment owner in those areas I wouldn’t be looking to sell).

      Verona could use some ‘life’ which is why I say go for it to the Housing Commission. I also hope that with this ten year plan in place and gradual improvements over time that it will help revitalize OM overall, encourage new businesses to come to the village and improve the economic development in OM that is sorely lacking. River Hill and Maple Lawn looks promising for now (but I haven’t seen any numbers on that to be sure). But I agree they really do need to have more affordable housing.

      I will look for the article in the Post. I missed it.

  6. I’m so glad I came across this exchange of ideas on the Verona Apartments issue. No one has mentioned the Oakland Mills Master Plan which I have been hearing lots about in recent exchanges with OM residents. Apparently County and Village representatives spent a great deal of time developing it a number of years ago. Here is a link:

    The plan calls for a full spectrum of housing for OM. What people are saying is that in keeping with the plan, OM has low and moderate income housing. What is lacking is the upscale housing. In a couple of cases they move on to suggest some ideas on how the County might help facilitate such housing.

    I only recently learned about these programs that allow developers a way around providing 10 % affordable housing in their developments. The July passage of CB 35 by the County Council will now allow them to give the HC Housing folks cash in lieu of building the 10 %. Tom Carbo estimates that it will bring in 3 + million dollars that can be used to provide affordable housing in the 21045 zip code and North Laurel. I have to agree with Brian and Karen, this will only increase the divide between the rich and the poor.

    Now to the “pinky swear” point. When this issue came to light in early October we were told that a “confidentiality agreement” was in place that prevented the County from telling the OM Village Board of the pending purchase of Verona. We were told that the seller lifted the agreement in August and the County began its outreach to the community. I have asked for a copy of the agreement and nothing has materialized. Probably because your characterization of it is probably accurate.

    A few years ago the County showed an interest in buying the Tor apartments (has a new name). When word got out, the community rose up and the idea was abandoned. This time, Mr. Carbo and Dr. Ball didn’t allow word to get out until the sale was a done deal. I notice that you said, “The Housing Commission” is not obligated to publicize the sale. Again, I only recently learned that the Housing Commission is an entity set apart from the Housing Department. For me, it makes no difference. Our community needed to be respected enough to hear about this before the July RFP. If the idea was (is) so great, it should have been able to withstand public scrutiny.

    Oh, I would be happy to shake my fist at the owners but I have been unable to find out who they are (were). Requests early on for a copy of the sale agreement have been ignored.

    If I sound a little frustrated, I am. The more I learn about all this and some of the history, the more appalled I am. One thing you should know, UB, many of the people who are in the forefront of the fight against this purchase, are the “do gooders” in the OM community who volunteer and help many of the less fortunate in the OM community.

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