In the news

Affordable Housing Agreement with Developers

February 17, 2019

Dear Constituent:

I am writing in response to recent news stories regarding the agreement I reached last November, and then cancelled, with developers of the proposed Oakland Crossings project.

First, I acknowledge and apologize to you for my poor judgment, which has caused some members of the community to lose trust in me. It has always been my goal as a Council member to represent constituents honestly and openly, and I am disappointed in myself for failing in that attempt. In my eagerness to advance social equity in the community, I did not realize that what I was doing might be wrong, and that is a lesson learned.

I also want to make it clear that there would have been no financial gain for me in this agreement, and that my entire purpose was to address the injustice of structural economic forces that condemn good, hard-working people to live in poverty, through no fault or failure of their own. Columbia’s shortage (really, an absence) of affordable housing is one of the most serious challenges facing the City's efforts to create a community in which "everyone can thrive."

More than 12,000 rental households in Columbia and about 3,500 owner-occupied households are "cost-burdened" by 30% or more. Because at least 30% of their income goes to housing and utilities, these families and individuals are in a fragile economic situation and at high risk of becoming homeless. This problem could be addressed if developers of new subdivisions and apartment buildings included a small number (say, 10%) of affordable units in their developments. Many cities have mandatory "Inclusionary Zoning" policies and others offer incentives for developers to include affordable housing voluntarily, and I have included the goal of introducing this approach in Columbia, in my policy platform.

Last November, when the developers of Oakland Crossings asked me to support their annexation and zoning request, I explained that I am generally opposed to large annexations and developments because of the enormous public subsidies that currently pertain (fair and logical development impact fees are also part of my policy platform). I described the Inclusionary Zoning approach and the developers indicated that they shared my concern and would be willing, in principle, to include affordable housing in their plans. However, because this discussion occurred rather late in the process, they offered instead to make a payment to the Columbia Community Land Trust (CCLT), which would be used to build affordable housing elsewhere in the city (Inclusionary Zoning policies in other cities often include this “buy-out” option).

I agreed to support this proposal and to encourage other City Council members to support it because of the affordable housing benefit to the city and the precedent it set for future policy. However, when the City Attorney reviewed the proposal, she felt the agreement (if we went through with it) might be in violation of State law, and so the idea was dropped immediately.

I see now that, in my enthusiasm to make progress on affordable housing, I overlooked the input of other stakeholders such as nearby residents and also the importance of waiting until after the public hearing to make a final decision on how I should vote. For those errors of judgment, I sincerely apologize.

In closing, I want to emphasize that this was never a "secret deal,” as has been alleged:

  • I used my City email account for all communications, knowing that these are public documents.
  • I included another City Council member in all of the discussions, to provide advice on the process.
  • City staff were present at the meeting with the developers and included in the email chain so they could provide professional guidance on the process - when the agreement shifted from building affordable housing to making a payment to the CCLT, the City Attorney expressed her opinion that this might be illegal and the agreement was cancelled.
  • Had the agreement stayed in place, I would have discussed the entire process in public during the November 19 City Council meeting and asked colleagues to join me in supporting the proposal (the “open meetings law” precluded my engaging the entire Council any earlier).
  • Even after the agreement was cancelled, my plan was to give a full explanation and then recuse myself from the vote - that did not happen because the item was withdrawn from the agenda.
  • The City Attorney sent an email to all City Council members earlier that day, including an explanation of what happened and her legal opinion.

Please email me to let me know your reactions. I also invite you to attend my Constituent Conversations this afternoon, 2-4pm at Dunn Bros. Coffee to share your thoughts and give me the opportunity to answer any questions you may have.

Ian Thomas