With the end of summer and the autumn routines starting to settle in, I will be posting here regularly. Stay tuned, we have some things to talk about.
Have you stopped by here lately? Me neither. A combination of summer swim team obligations (we had a great season!), a long-planned extended vacation, and finding my way into new volunteer opportunities has left not much time to blog.
With the end of summer and the autumn routines starting to settle in, I will be posting here regularly. Stay tuned, we have some things to talk about.
Ok, so maybe not a revolution, but the Columbia Association Board of Directors will be holding a series of worksessions on changes in Symphony Woods this week. There will be a meeting tonight:
7:00pm, CA Board Room
There will also be a meeting tomorrow night: This meeting will include both the CA Board of Directors and the Inner Arbor Board of Directors.
7:00pm, CA Board Room
There are lots of questions leading up to these meetings, but there is little time to explore them, because this meeting schedule is going to start in less than five hours. Given the short notice, I have no ability to make either meeting. I hope that someone can attend and let the residents of Columbia know what is going on.
What is particularly interesting is how I came to know about these meetings. As of this writing, there is no mention of the CA Board meetings on the CA Facebook page, the CA twitter account is silent on the subject. The RSS Feed has not mentioned the meetings. The local press has not put anything up on Baltimore Sun (Howard Section) website. If you click through on the Columbia Association Board website, the meetings are listed on their Google calendar, and the agendas are there. Other than that, there has been little in the way of notice of these meetings.
You know where I found out about this –email! The local Village Community Associations have been putting out information via email about this meeting (and posting on their Facebook pages), but that is about the extent of the notice. I am not sure if it is either irony or hypocrisy that one of the items to be discussed (at both meetings) will be public input into what happens in Symphony Woods.
Please forgive this paragraph in which I don a tin-foil hat and start speculating, but absent any meaningful attempt of meeting notice, I have to wonder – “Who is to gain if the only conduit of information about this meeting is an email campaign?” Email is not broadcasting, email is narrow and selective. It is known that two CA Board members are known for being closely associated with active Yahoo Groups in two Columbia Villages. Each of these Board members has a stated position on what should happen in Symphony Woods.
Now, speculation aside, given the particular way that notice was given about this meeting, it is my hope that during the resident speakout portion of the meeting, the CA Board will ask each resident how they found out about the meeting. Given the narrow notice platform, I also ask the CA Board to listen to the residents, but recognize that most people in Columbia do not know about these meetings, and the resident remarks, taken as a whole, do not represent the thinking of all Columbia.
In addition, it makes little sense to hold this meeting when the new CA President starts in less than a week. To the best of my knowledge, he will hold ex-offico member status on both the CA Board and the Inner Arbor Board. Common sense would dictate that the new CA President be seated before these meetings happen. To have these meetings when a change in board membership is to occur in less than a week is mind boggling.
Lastly, these meetings must have been scheduled in this way because of some external demands. I believe that all the CA Board members care about the Columbia Association and believe in its stated purpose. To conduct business in this way appears counter to what the Columbia Association does. If possible, I hope that CA Board members are open and honest as to why these meetings have to happen this way. If you have the ability to attend these meetings, I encourage you to do so. Comment on the subject of discussion and let your voice be heard. If you cannot attend, I suggest you contact all the CA Board members and let them know how you feel about this quickly scheduled, and limited notice meeting process. Ask that your voice be heard on the matter at hand.
By sundown on April 26, 2014, we all knew this day was coming. Two new Columbia Council Representatives were elected without any prior Columbia (CA or Village) board experience, and a third new member was elected without opposition. Although the representative from Oakland Mills has prior Village Board experience, his parallel candidacy in the Howard County Council race was in direct violation of the Columbia Association Ethics Policy. Yes, the meeting Thursday night was destined to have some bumps.
And I want to take some time here to welcome Alan, Jeanne, and Reg to the CA Board of Directors. The position comes with a lot of background information that is not discussed much. In addition to getting acquainted with the rules of Parliamentary Procedure, newly elected members of the CA Board also have a steep learning curve with respect to the Maryland Homeowners Association Act, the American Bar Association Model Legislation for Non-Profit Boards, and the IRS Regulations on 501c(4) corporations. These three waypoints constitute the triangle in which CA must operate, and in some cases, they seem to contradict.
So with all this new information in their hands, I find it wise to give new board members the benefit of the doubt for their first few meetings. Even the best of the best would feel a bit overwhelmed, and mis-steps can be expected. However, the thread that unites these three new faces on the CA board of Directors is transparency. All three based their candidacies on opening up the CA Board and providing residents more input into the decision making process.
That being said, Thursday night’s agenda docket presented four back-to-back meetings (PDF) (here, here, here and here). The serial meetings served two purposes: The first was to transition the elected Columbia Council Representatives to the CA Board of Directors. The second was to address Reg Avery and the ethics conflict.
Prior to the meeting(s), there had been talk that Reg could ask for a waiver from the Ethics Policy and be appointed to the Board of Directors. There is also indication that the Oakland Mills Improvement Village Association Board had sent emails of support with regard to Reg. That seemed to set up an adult conversation about the case of Reg Avery and his waiver petition.
Full disclosure, I attended the meeting last Thursday, but arrived about a half-hour late. As I took my seat, it was clear that the process was fully underway. Reg was at the table and interim CA President Susan Krabbe was presiding over the meeting, indicating a board Chairperson had not yet been selected, and a vigorous discussion was at hand. One thing immediately clear was that a majority of the gathered audience was supportive of Reg Avery, and they weren’t going to let decorum or civility stand in the way. “WE CAN’T HEAR YOU.” “THAT’S NOT RIGHT.” “YOU CAN’T DO THAT” “LET HIM SPEAK.” The catcalls were continuously interjected. Quite honestly, a room full of third-graders hopped up on Pixie Stix and Fun Dip are better behaved than the collection of sextigenarians (+) assembled.
Amid the cacophony, the elected CA representatives were considering a motion put forth by Alan Klein (HC). The motion was to amend the Columbia Association Code of Ethics and Conflicts of Interest Policy by removing the following:
A member of the Board upon declaring a candidacy for election to public office shall resign from the Board.
Those words clanged around inside my skull like lacrosse balls in a clothes dryer (tumble dry low). Suddenly, this was a much different meeting than advertised. Nowhere in the four meeting agendas is mention of the Ethics policy. This was not about reconciling an election result with an established (and known) policy. This was now a run to fundamentally change policy, without prior public knowledge, without public input, without background research and above all, without the transparency so clearly articulated by the newly elected members. In fact, the newly elected members were the ones leading the bypass of public input.
Alan Klein spoke to his motion, and (paraphrasing here) stated, “This is not about Reg Avery. I have met him, but I do not know him as a person. This is not about him, this is about the policy.” This was a particularly interesting statement in that Reg was sitting next to Alan, less than an arm’s length away. Physical proximity aside, Alan’s approach was intriguing. The ethics policy was not on the agenda. The appointment of Reg Avery was on the agenda. Alan’s words bring up another interesting point. If he did in fact believe that the policy was overly restrictive, it would be informative to understand when he came to this conclusion.
The policy has been in place since 2007. Alan has become a public activist before the policy was enacted (and that is a good thing, people that are involved are precious), but I cannot either recall or find any time in which Alan has stated that the Columbia Association ethics policy was too onerous (my words) with regard to running for public office. Alan has written many letters to the editor in our local paper. He has written on topics as large as the Columbia Downtown Plan, and as small as his thoughts on attendance at local festivals. I can’t find anything on restrictive ethics policies in his letters. Moreover, in the last few weeks Alan put out a lot of material explaining why he would be a great Columbia Council Representative and CA Board Member. I can’t find any language in the materials sent my way in which Alan takes a position on the ethics policy. Now, it may be that some of his campaign material spoke to the ethics policy and the need to reduce restrictions on CA Board members, but I am not aware of this material. However, I would love to see that material. If anything, Alan is gifted with his words, and I would be interested in seeing how he phrased his position.
After Alan spoke about the ethics policy, the Town Center representative spoke and said she agreed with Alan. I would think that her agreement with Alan indicates that she too has opposed the political office language in the ethics policy before the election of Reg Avery by Oakland Mills. Here too it would be helpful to find out when Jeanne thought the CA ethics policy was a problem and needed to be changed. I have not seen any campaign literature from Jeanne, but did she highlight the ethics policy as an issue? An issue so important that it had to be changed even before a board chair was elected?
The motion was then voted, and by my count, Alan Klein (HC), Jeanne Ketley (TC), Russ Swatek (LR), and Nancy McCord (WL) voted to strike the language from the ethics policy. Those four votes were not enough for the motion to pass.
Immediately after the motion failed, Russ Swatek (LR) put forth a motion to change the ethics policy such that a CA Board member would have to resign from the CA board after being elected to a public office. It was at this point that the meeting completely departed from the established agenda. As Alan had stated earlier, this wasn’t about Reg Avery and the Oakland Mills election. This was about rolling back policy. Another round of discussion ensued, and compromise held sway. The policy would be changed, and the only thing left to discuss was the degree. Elected members emphatically stated that there was no known conflict of interest that could arise. No evidence was presented to back up these assertions. In the end, the final motion stated (once again, trying to get the language as precise as I could write down), “Upon swearing in of a partisan public office, a CA Board member must resign.” This wording apparently gives an opening to a CA Board member to run for the HoCo Board of Education and remain on both boards simultaneously. I was thinking that because the Columbia Association provides before and after school care services to about 3000 families, this might be a huge conflict of interest, but I suppose those voting for the policy change did not find it an issue.
Immediately prior to the vote, Tom O’Connor (DS), participating via phone, made a plea for tabling the vote. He implored his other elected members to wait “to allow legal to look at the wording, to allow people to think about it more,” because “when we craft policy like this, we usually get it wrong.” Responding to Tom’s statement, Alan Klein (HC) stated, “this is not a problem, if we find that we don’t like what we did, we can always go back and change it.” One of the members in the audience on Thursday was local architect Cy Paumier. He was seated in the back of the room, and I could not see his face, but I would think that Cy would rather that Alan did not refer to CA’s decision-making process in that way. The motion was put to a vote and passed 8-2. The meeting was in recess shortly thereafter, and because of other commitments, I had to leave.
It has been a few days since the new CA Board’s first meeting, and I have struggled with what happened. The lack of public notice is a huge issue. In addition, the fact that it was the ethics policy that was changed, was troubling. This is a major policy. Given the amount of money residents pay to the Columbia Association, they want to provide input on things like how CA Board members conduct themselves, and they don’t want the CA Board mired in conflicts of interest. The fact that no one knew prior to the meeting that this was up for consideration raises doubts. The CA Board has changed the rules, and did not invite the public to have their concerns heard. Plainly said, they got this one wrong. Halfway through the meeting, I had hope that it was a process to allow new members to be heard, but when it became apparent that this policy was going to be changed, no matter what, my hopes were dashed. Please let your CA Board members know that this is not the way that business should be conducted and that future changes to major policy must be done with public notice and public input.
I don’t write much about sports on this blog. It’s not for lack of storylines. I’m sure lots of folks are discussing either the crater that was the Redskins/Chiefs game or the Ravens/Vikings closing minutes circus. In the world of roundball, a single loss has dropped the Washington Wizards from a stratospheric conference third seed down to seventh (which, admittedly, sounds much more consistent with their historical norm). The fact is that we have a plethora of accomplished local sports columnists and bloggers out there that cover sports much better than I ever could.
And then the FIFA World Cup draw happened. Now, I am in no way a soccer fanatic, but I did grow up in the United States soccer explosion of the 1970’s. The New York Cosmos, Tampa Bay Rowdies and of course, the Washington Diplomats all have meaning to me. They have far more meaning to me than any USFL team, and to be honest, many current professional sports teams. I follow the CONCACAF qualifying matches. The term “dos a cero” does get my sports pride going (here and here) just as much as “festivus maximus” when the Baltimore Ravens are playing in January. I also find myself watching MSL games more often, quietly hoping for DC United to return to the glory of a decade ago.
So last week, the international federation that governs soccer (futbol!), FIFA, held a draw for the triennial World Cup. For the uninitiated, this is roughly analogous to the NCAA basketball bracket draw, only on a world stage. In the World Cup format, the 32 national teams that advanced during regional qualification rounds are randomly assigned into eight groups of four, lettered A-H (Note: because almost 1/3 of the teams are from Europe, there are some controls in the draw to ensure that no more than two European teams per group).. The national teams in each group then play a round-robin series of matches and the countries with the two best records advance to a single elimination round.
In this World Cup, our United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) finds itself in Group G with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana. To put this group in context, the FIFA World Rankings show Germany to be the second best team in the world. Portugal is ranked fifth. The United States comes in a respectable 14th and Ghana rounds out the group ranked 24th. So in two of these group play matches, the United States will be a clear underdog. That matchup against Ghana? Yes, the United States is ranked higher than Ghana, but the USMNT has faced Ghana in the last two World Cups, and lost both times. Despite the world rankings, history will loom over the pitch during this match.
How does this all relate to Columbia, Maryland?
Recently, Columbia partnered with the city of Tema, Ghana as sister cities. Columbia is one of a handful of American cities to have a sister city in Ghana. This international sport matchup represents an opportunity to deepen our new relationship with our sister city. I think a good start would be to arrange for the Columbia Association (the organization that supports the sister cities program) to work with the local high schools and SAC/HoCo to exchange jerseys with some of the Tema youth soccer teams. Following on this, it might be time for the Columbia Association to look into expanding the cultural exchanges for all sister cities to include organized sports and fitness. Although it may not be as well known as the lap swimming times at the Supreme Sports Club, the Columbia Association has experimented with a culinary exchange program (or something like that) within the Sister Cities structure. They could use this as a model to build the sports exchanges.
So let’s think big
Building on the thought of deepening the Columbia/Tema experience with the World Cup as a focal point; the two national teams will play each other on June 16, 2014 at 6:00pm Columbia time. That is right in the middle of the Columbia Festival of the Arts in downtown Columbia.
Before I go any further down this line of thinking, let me say that the Festival of the Arts is a great perennial celebration of culture and arts. My family and I always go to the Lakefest activities and it is a great time. The folks that run the Festival of the Arts spend countless hours putting together a great event every year and their efforts should not be minimized. In fact, I believe in order to make the festival such a success, I would think that much of the Festival schedule has been put in place by now. Probably not set in stone, but certainly in an advanced stage of curing.
But now I’m going to ask for a favor. Given the buildup for this first match of the 2014 World Cup for both the USMNT and the Ghana National Team, given our newfound relationship with Tema, given that the Festival of the Arts will have in place the requisite power, audio, lighting and port-a-potty farm, and given that by mid-June many of us will be looking for a way to watch the game (is Union Jacks taking reservations yet?) – and attendance at the Festival of the Arts may suffer from this; why not find a way to televise the game at the Columbia lakefront?
I write this understanding that this is no small task. Asking for at least a two-hour block of time early on Monday evening is probably asking a lot. There are logistics to consider. By 6:00pm, the sun will have descended behind the American Cities Building, but there will still be sufficient light to make viewing projected images on a large screen difficult. A change this dramatic would require a budget, and a funding mechanism for that budget. These are the challenges, and I humbly ask – isn’t Columbia the type of community that can take on these challenges and present a special evening of sport and international sisterhood? This may not be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it is a rare opportunity where we can all come together and celebrate.
If anyone has any doubts, take a look at the video below. It shows the reaction to a winning goal by USMNT member Landon Donovan in the 2010 World Cup match against Algeria:
We only have about 180 days left. Let’s do this.
One thing that I have learned about Columbia is that community meetings have a lot more going on than just a meeting. These are not seminars or meet-ups. They are not like college classes or legislative hearings. No, a Columbia community meeting contains elements of professional wrestling, The Jerry Springer Show, religious revival, and intervention.
As a result, very little information gets communicated at a Columbia community meeting. It is subsumed by catharsis and in that turbulent emotional release the focus transforms from information to motive (of both individuals and organizations) until the evening protracts to judgments of right or wrong. Timelines get skewed, all past indiscretions are presented anew, as though the topic considered was a conspiracy put into place years ago, only to manifest itself that particular evening. All of that happened in Oakland Mills last Tuesday night. It is important to say that this type of event is not unique to Oakland Mills, but they do have their own certain style.
Howard County Citizens Association President Stu Kohn was in attendance, and this is how he characterized the meeting:
“The residents are not happy and down-right angry. Many spoke out about their concerns. The common theme was the lack of transparency and that Oakland Mills has much of the concentrated subsidized housing. They are very concerned about schools, crime, quality of life, and property values.”
Before the meeting began, a small group of vocal residents, most of whom had elementary school age kids during the Ford Administration, assembled at the entrance to The Other Barn. As meeting attendees entered the building, they had to pass through the group as they enthusiastically asked for the contact information of the attendees. They were gathering a list for the newly formed group, the “Oakland Mills Improvement Association.” Above all of this was former Oakland Mills Village Board member/County Councilmember/State Delegate Ginny Thomas exhorting “We promise to keep your email secret if you sign up!” I have talked to a few Oakland Mills Village Board members, and they were none too happy about this. They felt that creating a bottleneck into the meeting was a bit ambitious and that some of the folks that signed up may have erroneously thought they were signing up for the “resident remarks” portion of the meeting. I can see their point. It may have been better to ask people to sign up for the OMIA after the meeting. That would have shown some deference to the folks actually holding the meeting and would have promoted goodwill with the Village Board.
The meeting itself started with some introductory remarks by Oakland Mills Board Chairman Bill Gray and County Councilman Calvin Ball. Howard County Housing Commission Director Tom Corbo gave a brief explanation of the current state of subsidized housing in Oakland Mills, an overview of the Housing Commission’s plans (and future possibilities) for the Verona Apartments, and the different types of subsidized housing programs in Howard County. Lastly, former Oakland Mills High School Principal Frank Eastham shared a few remarks with the crowd. In particular, he shared that as a boy he received free lunches at school as part of an assistance program, and to not put a particular face or location on the folks that receive Free and Reduced Meals in Oakland Mills today.
The meeting then pivoted to “resident remarks,” in which Oakland Mills residents were allowed three minutes each to state their concerns. It was at this point that the meeting was essentially turned over to the Oakland Mills Improvement Association. Part of this was staging. At the beginning of the meeting, the Oakland Mills Village Board took seats along the perimeter of the room, allowing the County officials to sit at a table in the front. Secondly, OMIA came early and signed as a block at the beginning of the meeting. Of the 26 people that spoke, 10 of them were identified as members of OMIA. In fact, they were nine of the first twelve to speak. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, but the result was that OMIA got their message out, with little interruption, and I’m not sure everyone that wanted to speak had a chance due to time considerations.
On the other hand, OMIA came prepared. Each speaker had a slightly different take on their opposition to the Verona apartments purchase. In addition, they kept pretty close to the 3-minute time limit. That was impressive. The aforementioned Ginny Thomas was the first speaker. She set the tone of the evening by weaponizing the Howard County Housing Commission. Specifically, Ms. Thomas stated:
“Why is Oakland Mills being targeted?...Oakland Mills is a target, 21045 is a target, and the reason is simple. We have a lot of affordable rental units that have grown old over the years.”
Ms. Thomas also brought up another point that I found a bit surprising, she holds County Councilperson Jen Terrasa, who represents southeastern Columbia and North Laurel, in high regard. This is how Ms. Thomas phrased it:
“Councilman Jen Terrasa is here, and I want to compliment her because in North Laurel the Housing Commission was ready to put something there. 95 people showed up and Jen Terrasa carried the ball, met with Ken Ulman and it’s been reversed. So I would like to congratulate North Laurel citizens. You can name other places in the County where people have defeated projects. So we don’t have to take this, guys.”
I should note that from where I was sitting, I could see Jen Terrasa, and she did not look too happy about this characterization. It may have been wiser to speak with the Councilperson before publicly making those remarks, but that is how the evening started. The remainder of the OMIA statements probably should be left to a blog post on their own.
That being said, there were a number of other speakers of note. A gentleman named Wendell did not support the Howard County Housing Commission purchase, but did explain at length that before coming to this decision, he had proactively visited with people that live around the Village Center. In this act, he explained, there was no “us” and “them,” only “us.” That was a wonderful moment.
The Presidents of the Stevens Forest Elementary School PTA and Oakland Mills Middle School PTSA both voiced opposition, but spent much of their time speaking about the children, staff and educators at their schools. These neighborhood leaders were eloquent in their description of the conditions in their schools; about challenges, caring, and celebrating the entire student body. Anyone involved in this discussion should seek them out, sit on their hands, and listen.
All told, much of the evening could be summed up by two speakers. The first, a woman who identified herself as a long-time Columbian announced to the crowd that she had found a website that provided tenants the ability to comment on their apartments. She found the comments relating to the Verona, and after describing moldy walls and disrepair, the crowd cheered and clapped. Conversely, the last speaker, much younger in age than the average of those attending, came to the podium with two children in tow. She told the crowd that she is a current resident of the Verona apartments and explained the conditions in her apartment. This woman was clearly frustrated and there was a lot of emotion in her voice. After explaining her plight, all she could say is “Just tear it down.” As she repeated this phrase a few times, waves of laughter rolled through the crowd. The juxtaposition of these two Oakland Mills residents; one older and one younger, one an owner and one a renter, and the crowd reaction when speaking on the exact same topic, left me worried about what was really going on here. I keep thinking that maybe I missed something. Maybe there was something going on beyond my field of vision. Maybe someone farted. All I know now is that late Tuesday night, one woman went back to her comfortable home believing she contributed to the discussion and another woman went home with her children to a home in distress knowing that more than 150 people laughed at her.
In the end it was a night with a lot of no’s, a lot of cheering and a lot of clapping, but I don’t think many people learned much. Maybe that was not the intent. I can only hope that in the future, rational discussion and respect will carry the day. I hope that all interested parties understand that the best solution, and probably the only solution, will involve negotiation and compromise. I hope for a better Oakland Mills.
I don’t live in Oakland Mills, but I worry about Oakland Mills. In addition, I feel just awful putting my nose in the business of another Columbia Village. The folks in Oakland Mills know their neighborhood best and I prefer to support the local conventional wisdom. Today I am compelled to make an exception.
Like many Columbia Villages, the broad state of Oakland Mills can be viewed by two interrelated forces that describe the same set of circumstances in the daily life of a Village: Oakland Mills has a lot of problems. Oakland Mills has a lot of opportunity. At times, these forces are in tension and tend to tear at the community. Other times, these forces are in compression and crush the middle ground. On occasion, these forces work in the same direction at the same time.
Recent discussions regarding the Howard County Housing Commission’s intent to purchase the Verona apartments, located near the Oakland Mills Village Center, have (in my opinion) emphasized the potential problems. Opportunity does find its way into the discussion, but at this time it is minimal.
Based on a number of conversations I have had with Oakland Mills residents, the expectations for the area near the Oakland Mills Village Center are high, and the desired change from the current condition is dramatic. The conventional wisdom is as follows: “Oakland Mills has its fair share of lower income housing. What Oakland Mills needs is more high income housing.” Beyond these framing statements, I cannot find much of a plan. Yes, the Oakland Mills Village Board authored a Master Plan (PDF) that has a stated goal of more high end housing, but the plan lacks detail on how to achieve this goal.
It appears many that oppose the Howard County Housing Commission purchase of the Verona apartments are laser focused on a single metric: What are the expected future incomes of those that would reside on the properties? The implication is that if the number of lower income residents increases, even by the smallest of integer numbers, it would be too much for the neighborhood to bear. In my opinion, it is a clear, bright line that smacks of classism and really does not have a place in Columbia.
I have heard two theories from those in opposition. The first is a deflection, and can be summed up as follows: “Why don’t they put this mixed income housing in _____ (fill in your own supposedly upscale neighborhood here, usual suspects are River Hill, Maple Lawn, Elkridge, Ellicott City, etc) instead of Oakland Mills?” I have not had any conversations with the Commission, but the answer to this obtuse question is obvious. These types of initiatives by the Housing Commission are pretty straightforward. Through the strategic purchase and renovation of properties, coupled with effective local management of current and future tenants, the Housing Commission can turn a profit that is redistributed into other local initiatives. Although technically possible, the feasibility of purchasing property at a premium and expecting a return on investment to further the Commission program would be far more difficult. So yes, given a long enough time line, I would expect the Housing Commission to pursue mixed income housing in other parts of the County – but today that opportunity exists in Oakland Mills.
The second theory relates to the schools near the Verona apartments. In this world view, there is a direct correlation between the number of lower income residents and the percentage of children that receive Free and Reduced Meals (FARMs) at the local schools. This proposed correlation then translates into lower property values and a general decline of the entire neighborhood. I find this thinking particularly vile and insipid. It sets up the local student population as a straw man against development. The youngest in our neighborhoods deserve require unconditional love and respect. They must be given every opportunity to succeed. They should never be used as pawns.
Map of Stevens Forest -
The current makeup of the Stevens Forest neighborhood shows that many of the single family homes are childless. All told, there are a little less than 700 single family households in Stevens Forest. Of those houses, 136 of them had school age children in the year 2000. By 2010, that number dropped to 105 households. This translates to approximately 17% of the single family homes sending to Stevens Forest Elementary School. As a point of reference, there are more people living alone in single family homes (114) than have school age children in the Stevens Forest single family homes.
Conversely, the apartments (to include Forest Ridge, the Verona, and Grand Pointe) are about 1100 units. Within those households, 129 had school age children present. By 2010, that number was 195, an increase of 65 households. So currently, approximately 20% of the apartments send children to Stevens Forest Elementary. Another point to consider is that among the apartments in Oakland Mills, many of them are rented at market value. I would caution anyone from inferring that the 195 apartment households sending to Stevens Forest Elementary School equates to the households qualifying for Free and Reduced Meals. If the subsidized housing at the Verona increased to 40%, that would translate to approximately 60 more households. If the percentage of households holds at approximately 20% (the Columbia Association has done a lot of research on this, and they believe the percentage of family households will actually decrease in the future), that would give 12 more households with school age kids. So we are talking about a dozen homes impacting the local school system.
Conversely, the general case shows that single family homes are purchased by higher income earners. If a greater proportion of these houses were the homes of children sent to the local schools, the proportion/percentage of lower income students would decrease. Simply said, a higher instance of families that participate in the FARM program may not indicate a concentration in low income residents, it can indicate an absence of higher income residents (in established single family housing units) with children.
On the opportunity side of the discussion, I have identified at least three possible scenarios. The first is laissez-faire. Pretty much, let the market determine the outcomes associated with the properties surrounding the Oakland Mills Village Center. If there is an upside to this scenario, it is that there is little to do. Beyond any regulations associated with the transfer of real estate and due diligence on the part of financial institutions involved in the transaction, an entity would no doubt purchase the apartments and operate the property in accordance with their internal management norms. Unless specified by the seller, there is no guarantee that the eventual buyer would have offices in Howard County, or even in the state of Maryland. Given the track record with other property owners in Oakland Mills, most notably Exxon-Mobil and Cedar Properties, I would question if a distantly located owner would understand or work well with the Oakland Mills governance structure. In the end, the change would be far less than dramatic and the vision for high end housing would be pushed farther into the century.
The second opportunity is the aforementioned high income housing development that many in the Oakland Mills area desire. The concept is high in allure, but is crippled by a lack of details of a finished product. If you poll the well informed citizen bystanders in Oakland Mills as to what a high end housing development is, you get a lot of different responses. Some describe something that looks remarkably similar to what the Verona looks like now, but with high end appliances and marble countertops. Others will describe a vacation they took to Portland, OR or Savanna, GA. On that vacation, they saw a particular building, or city block. They will describe in passionate detail of how this could work in Oakland Mills, irrespective of the supporting infrastructure that made that one place unique. A third contingent is not too specific on details, but emphasizes things like LEED certification, sustainability and renewable energy. I think it is possible for a high-end multi-unit building to find a place near the Oakland Mills Village Center, but I don’t think there is a design that will meet all of these disparate expectations.
It might be a good idea for folks in Oakland Mills to take a look at a dozen or so suburban high end developments in the region and consider the aspects they have in common. Take a look at the apartments adjacent to the shopping center on US 1 and Contee Road. Park your car and walk the distance between the Arundel Mills complex and the Baltimore Washington Parkway. This is what is being built in the region, and think about how they would fit into Oakland Mills. Most are five stories high and are stick-built. If the preference is for steel construction, the minimum heights of these developments quickly go past ten floors. If high end housing is what they desire, that is what most likely would show up.
If Oakland Mills is smitten with this idea of high-end housing units, I suggest they bring in some of the developers of this type of property. Get to know them, and understand what and how they build. Demonstrate a willingness to be flexible. Right now, Oakland Mills is developing a reputation for speaking loudly about problems with county parks, US 29 crossings, and mixed income communities. If a high end developer had a choice to purchase a property either in Oakland Mills or anywhere else, one of the deciding criteria would be how much cooperation they could expect from the surrounding community. Honey and vinegar my friends, honey and vinegar.
The last opportunity is the one put forth by the Howard County Housing Commission. As currently described, the Commission would provide local oversight and management of the Verona property for ten years. After ten years, the Commission would propose a redevelopment of the property. Recent reporting on the proposed redevelopment contains references to increasing the number of subsidized housing units to 40%. This roughly translates to an increase of 60 units. Many in the community are focused on this number, but I want to point out here some of the things that are beyond a number.
What comes with the redevelopment is a design based in 21st century thinking. Design materials, building efficiency, location and quality of on-property amenities and even parking will all be a vast improvement over the current 1970’s era design. Another point to consider is the new construction will be on a scale that will be a positive impact on the neighborhood. Much like many forward thinking Stevens Forest residents opted for vinyl siding over the traditional T1-11 plywood cladding, new development often induces more new development.
Although material improvements will be a benefit, the culture brought by the Howard County Housing Commission is also an improvement. As a non-profit, it is mission focused and directs its profit back into the community. Moreover, the Commission is local and responsive to the community. On balance, this may be the best opportunity in Oakland Mills. Not so much because of the development itself, but because of what it brings with it.
Is Perception Reality?
The main reason I wrote this blog post is because most of the discussion about the Verona apartments comes with subtext. Let me say up front, this is not universal, there are people out there that have voiced their opinions based on direct and personal experiences with the people that live in Oakland Mills apartments. For most of the others, the subtext speaks to the distance in Oakland Mills. Because if you listen carefully, their discussion is not about Mary and Robert that live in an apartment. It’s not about Cindy, a Stevens Forest Elementary School student and the daughter of Kyle and Jennifer. It’s about a national study that warns of neighborhood decline. It’s about percentages, unmoored from what is actually happening in the neighborhood. As Oakland Mills moves forward, they will have to integrate apartment dwellers into the discussion. They have been without a voice for far too long.
How will Oakland Mills look a decade from now? The answer to that question is very much up in the air. What we do know is that there is a new property owner that wants to improve things in Oakland Mills. I would encourage the Oakland Mills Village Board to work closely with the Howard County Housing Commission in the next few years. Keep the conversation going about what is going on in Monarch Mills, Burgess Mills, and Columbia Landing. Encourage the Commission to have current residents in the Verona apartments to participate in the Village Board process. The Village Board should also engage other apartment owners in a discussion of what they see happening in the next ten years. It would be nice to see more than one property owner upgrading their buildings and if the work could be well coordinated, even better. It is in this way the Village Board can get the problems and opportunities in Oakland Mills moving in the same direction.
My last blog post on this subject discussed how Columbia, MD has evolved over the last thirty years, and the effect of that growth. As Columbia has aged, the population and number of households has grown in an almost linear fashion. However, the number of families with kids has remained almost constant over the same period.
The last discussion centered on Howard Research and Development and the pace at which Village Centers were constructed. We almost have twice the number of Village Centers that we had in 1980, and the same number of families with kids. I believe that is a top-three reason why the Village Centers are struggling. Today I will take a look at the effect of the historically low percentage of family with kids households on the Columbia Association.
Much like Howard Research and Development, the Columbia Association has shown a similar fidelity to the Columbia Plan, although their results are somewhat mixed. Forty-nine years ago (almost to the day), James Rouse presented plans for Columbia and distributed binders with information on how the city would be organized. Within this binder, there are many references to what would ultimately become part of the Columbia Association.
THE NEIGHBORHOOD CENTER (page 25)
As Columbia progressed through the 1970’s, neighborhood center construction was severely curtailed. This marked the first departure from the Columbia Plan. In the Villages of Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills, Harper’s Choice, and Long Reach, the neighborhood center concept is intact. Of these villages, only Hobbit’s Glen (HC) and Kendall Ridge (LR) do not have neighborhood centers. More telling are the younger Villages of Owen Brown, Hickory Ridge, Kings Contrivance, Dorsey’s Search and River Hill:
RECREATION AND OPEN SPACE (page 35)
In 1980, Columbia had one fitness center – The Athletic Club. Since then, CA acquired the Supreme Court and Skateland properties. These were ultimately combined into odd bird Supreme Sports Club. CA also built the River Hill Gym. The fitness centers have been a success over the last few decades as the fitness industry in general has mushroomed. In 1980, Jane Fonda was still known as an actress, her workout video would not be released for another two years. Although each fitness facility caters to a wide range of patrons, a lot of their equipment and many of their classes come with minimum age requirements. To their credit, CA has spent considerable time and expense setting up a separate KidSpace area for younger kids to use while parents work out. CA has also grown to emphasize individual workout services.
What we are looking at here are broad trends over time measured with a calendar. Columbia’s adult population has grown for more than forty years. This adult population has also seen growth in the demand for fitness programs, and the Columbia Association has met that demand well. With each wave of fitness programs and/or equipment, the Columbia Association has adapted well. Whether it was aerobics, Pilates, Zumba or Nautilus machines, steppers, Lifecycles, rowing machines, treadmills or elliptical machines; the Columbia Association has found a way to integrate these into their membership offerings. It’s hard to criticize success; however, this single segment of the Columbia Association recreational portfolio cannot be taken as a success of the whole division.
On the aquatics front, CA was celebrating the grand opening of the Hopewell and MacGills Common Pools (Columbia’s 14th and 15th pools) in 1980. Within a few years, the CA Board of Directors would fundamentally change the outdoor pool philosophy. They changed the name of the pool division from neighborhood pools to outdoor pools; indicating that they no longer intended to construct an outdoor pool in every Columbia neighborhood (my regrets to Elkhorn (OB), Pointers Run (RH), and Fairway Hills (DS)). Although this represents another departure from the Columbia Plan, CA did go on to build eight more pools over the last thirty years.
It was in fact pool attendance data that started me thinking about what was going on in Columbia. Early in the Columbia Association Aquatics Master Plan discussion, the Columbia Association handed out a document titled “Demographic Pool Trends (PDF).”
There wasn’t a full decade worth of data (I vaguely recall that there is some problem with the fidelity of the data from 2001-2005) for the last ten years, but a regression analysis of CA pool attendance from 2006-2010 does show a negative trend.
What stuck in my head was that during the last decade Columbia’s population had increased by more than 11,000, increased the number of households by more than 5000, and the Columbia Association converted two of its pools to mini-waterparks, and total pool attendance still went down.
The decreasing percentage of families in Columbia has also impacted the CA budget, and hard. If you talk to the folks at CA, they will tell you that membership retention has been in line with their projections. It is a fact that CA does not have any fiscal problems and its balance sheet is healthy. However, over the last four months, I have talked with dozens of families in Columbia about what CA services they use. When comparing family expenditures on CA services to married couples and singles, the Columbia Association and families are far more tightly bound to each other.
First a caveat, for the most part, I am talking about people on lien assessed properties. That is the one equalizer in Columbia – we all pay the annual charge. Beyond that, families that sign up for an amenity or Package Plan membership pay the highest cost (family memberships cost more than individual memberships). In addition, Columbia families enroll their younger children in the CA School Age Services program (before and after school care), day programs at the Supreme Sports Club, and during the summer months – weeks and weeks of summer camps. For those single parents or dual income family households, these CA services are a necessity. Many families also have birthday parties at CA facilities, as well as participate in CA swim leagues and martial arts. Most that I have talked to appreciate the services and, with a hiccup here or there, are pleased with the services provided. All told, these Columbian families pay approximately $10,000/year (each) to the Columbia Association.
To put that in context, consider if we increased the number of Columbian families with children by 10%. A 10% increase in families with kids is approximately 4000 households. If 1/3 of these households (1334) participate in the services listed above, that translates into more than $12,000,000 going to the Columbia Association each year. Many of the remaining households would also participate in the Columbia Association, through membership and other activities. As a note of caution, the 1/3 participation rate is an estimation, and not all families will participate in all activities/amenities. However, taken together the additional revenue and increased utilization of existing facilities would bring in millions of annual revenue and put to rest the discussions about closing pools or repurposing tot lots.
One final note on the Columbia Association; the CA Board of Directors and CA senior management has been focused on the projected demographic changes and the increase in the senior population. They are to be commended for being in front of this issue. However, part of their effort has been directed at increasing senior participation through limited memberships. These memberships have been rumored to be around $200 per year. If you do the cost analysis on this, it would take 50 participating seniors to equal bringing one married couple with kids into the city. So here is the question, “Would it be easier to get 50 seniors to obtain a membership, or one family?” If you draw out this analysis the answer becomes a little clearer: “Can we get five families to move in and take advantage of CA services faster and easier than recruiting 250 seniors?” In an ideal world, CA should recruit both groups, but over the last few years, I have not heard much from CA about recruiting families to live in Columbia. Now is the time for residents to advocate for a balanced approach.
Columbia’s population has been increasing every year and the number of households has more than doubled in the last thirty years. However, married couple households with children have stagnated and shown little change over thirty years.
Beyond the raw number of households, the number or married with kids households as a percentage of total households has dropped from 42% (1980) to approximately 22% (2010).
It does not matter if I am talking to a couple that moved here in 1971 or perusing the “You Know You Grew Up in Columbia” Facebook page, it is not hard to find people lamenting that Columbia is not like it used to be. It is true that Columbia has less trees and more of a built environment than in 1980, but I believe that the determining factor is that Columbia has (as a percentage of total households), a lot fewer families. At one time community was synonymous with family. Today it is not.
In order for Columbia to be successful, families are an economic necessity. This town cannot survive as it was intended without them, and they need to be present in greater numbers. The percentage of married couples with kids in 1980 may represent a high water mark that may never be repeated. However, the current number of families with kids is too small at this time. To get an understanding of the effects of married couples with kids on Columbia today, consider the following projection:
As shown above, an attempt to restore the married with kid household percentage back to 1980 levels (42%) would require 7517 households, almost doubling the current number of households with kids. I do not think this could reasonably happen in my lifetime. To put it kindly, it would be turbulent. As a point of reference, Baltimore City has a goal of attracting 10,000 more families to their city, and they have a lot more households than Columbia.
On the other hand, increasing the number of married with kids households to 33% of total households (approximately 4000 households) seems somewhat reasonable over a decade. That is roughly 500 households a year. Ambitious, yes but a goal worthy of such a great community. Another point to keep in mind is that the number of senior households is projected to increase by 10% over the same time period, and most reports I have read show local and governmental organizations lining up to accommodate this age group, so why not both seniors and families?
Before we get into any deeper analysis here, it is important to frame the discussion. Beyond the charts and numbers, it is important to know what was going on in Columbia in 1980, and how the community has evolved over the last three decades.
The Columbia of 1980 is a place far removed from today. US 29 still had stoplights at MD 103, MD 108, South Entrance Road (southbound), Owen Brown Road, and MD 32. In fact the MD 32 we know today only extended about a mile, from a spur off Guilford Road to I-95. At that time, MD 32 was what we now call Guilford Road. For those brave kids that liked to explore, the overpasses for what is now MD 32 existed in a meadow with no roads connecting them. MD 100 was still on the drawing board.
Then, as now, the Mall in Columbia was under construction. The soon to be opened wing that now houses the food court and Sears anchor was being built. Taco Bueno was holding down the corner between the original mall and the new construction. Even though the mall expansion had taken down far more trees than anyone imagined, a thick buffer of trees separated the Mall from Governor Warfield Parkway and the neighborhoods to the west of downtown. The Howard County Central Library had been built, but it was restricted to staff-only access and not open to the public.
Out in the Villages, development continued according to the plan. By this time most of Wilde Lake, Harpers Choice, Oakland MIlls, and Long Reach were built out. The Village of River HIll was still in the design stage, and the neighborhoods of Kendall Ridge (Long Reach), Dickinson (Kings Contrivance), and Fairway Hills (Dorsey Search) had not been built. Clarys Forest (HIckory Ridge), Hopewell (Owen Brown), Hobbits Glen (Harpers Choice) and Dorsey Hall (Dorsey Search) would see many more housing units constructed in the coming decades. In short, Columbia has always been known as a planned community, and the master plan was well under way.
Follow the Plan
Over the last thirty years, the Columbia Plan was a powerful driver. The master plan, both the physical layout and economic model, was intended to be so comprehensive that it would take into account changing variables over time. The Columbia plan performance during the 1970’s reinforced this thinking. Having gone through two energy crises and recession, Columbia was still doing well against the bottom line. These shocks were not planned for, and many similar planned communities - with Federal government backing -went bankrupt during the same time period. Given this short history, it is hard to fault anyone who thought at the time that the Columbia Plan was durable and robust.
With this setting, construction continued at pace over the last thirty years. In addition to the residential construction, Howard Research and Development constructed the Hickory Ridge, Dorsey Hall, Kings Contrivance and River Hill Village Centers. These four joined the five (Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills, Harpers Choice, Long Reach, and Owen Brown) Village Centers in the city, and this was in accordance with the plan. (Note: the Owen Brown Village Center was built by Giant Food, Inc.)
Apparently what was not considered during this time was while all this construction was going on, the number of married with kids households remained constant. This diluted the grocery shopping dollar across the city. We now have the same number of families shopping at twice the number of supermarkets (and yes, at grocery stores at Columbia’s perimeter, and Costco, and Wegmans). The effect has reduced individual store profits across the city. Keep in mind that this was not readily apparent. As the population of Columbia grew, there were more shoppers in the stores, but if the patrons were shopping for two, they bought less than parents shopping to feed themselves and kids.
To attempt to quantify difference in purchase power, refer again to the bar chart above. As stated earlier, I believe a goal of adding 4000 families to Columbia would help stabilize the city. If those new family households displaced singles and couples, the established supermarkets would see an increase in revenue. Consider the following data from the Food Marketing Institute (note year 2011, latest year available):
2011 Grocery Store Expenditures
The difference in spending between the groups identified is:
Weekly_Spending_Delta = $120.70 - $90.00 = $30.70
Annualizing this cost results in:
Annual_Spending_Delta = $30.70 (per week) X 52 (weeks/year) = $1,596.40
Taking the annual spending difference and applying it to 4000 families with kids gives:
Household_Spending_Delta = $1,596.40 X 4000 (families) = $6,385,600 each year.
Now, much has been said in this town about the arrival of Costco and Wegmans on the east side. Many believe these big box stores have resulted in the decline of Village Centers. I am certain that they have had some effect, but the magnitude of the lack of families in this town may rival the impact of the big box stores. Think of it this way, even with Costco and Wegmans, if we had married with kids households putting an additional $6,000,000 into supermarket cash registers (annually), we would not be talking about struggling Village Centers.
Another source to consider is the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey database. Through a compilation of diaries and surveys, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Census Bureau publish on a regular basis the spending habits of Americans. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics website:
The Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE) program consists of two surveys, the Quarterly Interview Survey and the Diary Survey, that provide information on the buying habits of American consumers, including data on their expenditures, income, and consumer unit (families and single consumers) characteristics. The survey data are collected for the Bureau of Labor Statistics by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The following data was extracted from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditures database for different household types and reproduced in chart form. As shown in the graph below, families with kids have consistently outspent married couples and singles. On average the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditures data (for years 2002 - 2012) shows families with kids spent $1439.91 more than married couples annually. This is similar with the Food Marketing Institute data. In fact, the two numbers are within 10% of each other.
In an effort to further clarify the impact of these national figures, the BLS also generates cost profiles for specific regions of the country. In 2013 the BLS took a look at the Baltimore metropolitan region (PDF). This study shows that Baltimore metro food expenditures are not statistically different from the national numbers.
Now, I’m not neither an economist nor a marketing professional. Given the above data, I do not expect that every single dollar would be produced and directly spent on groceries. What is important to consider here is that the above data suggests that families moving into Columbia would have a positive effect on supermarket revenues, and by extension the health of the Village Centers. Secondly, I believe it is safe to state that the magnitude of families moving in can be measured in millions of dollars.
Going a Little Deeper
As an industry, retail supermarkets operate on very slim profit margins, typically on the order of 1%-3%. If the future Columbia household profile changes and the additional monies spent in grocery stores are directed only toward low profit and loss-lead items, the impact would be minimal. The largest supermarket chains have done continuous and exhaustive studies on the purchasing habits of various household types; however, this type of analysis is considered proprietary and very few have been released to the public. If you have time, I suggest taking a look at one study done by the Progressive Grocer. It provides an exhaustive comparison of purchasing categories by household size.
What is known about supermarkets is where a lot of their profit is generated. Many of the high-profit items are easy to find, they are typically at the store perimeter. Fresh produce, the deli counter, bakery counter and fresh fish counter is where a lot of store profit is generated. Markups on these items are typically high. Within the aisles, cereal and private brand (store brand) goods also carry high markups. At first blush, this aligns pretty well with family with kids purchasing habits. Fresh fruit and cereal is a breakfast staple in most American families. Brown bag lunches for parents and kids require regular visits to the deli counter, and purchasing in higher quantities. With more people in the house, more birthday cakes are purchased, in addition to purchasing muffins and other baked goods to support organized youth sports, PTA teacher appreciation meals, and other events. The Bureau of Labor Statistics - Consumer Expenditure data shown in the charts below demonstrates the annual purchasing differences between families with kids, married couples, and singles.
Now no amount of charts and data is going to predict future behavior with absolute certainty. In a way, this entire (lengthy) blog post is a response to all the research and data collection that was part of the original Columbia Plan. In the future, household spending may turn out to be completely different than what recent history has shown. Initial public documents from the Rouse Company touted Columbia as a community of 29,000 families when completed. We have about 1/3 that number. The number of single occupant households now exceeds the number of family with kids households. The current Columbia household type profile cannot support the number of Village Centers in the community.
If we value the Village Center, not only as a place for convenient shopping, but as a vital concept that is integral to the Columbia Vision, we need to change. If this change does not become part of our culture, Village Centers will continue to see instability and possibly go under. When that happens, Columbia will move farther away from the vision laid out almost fifty years ago and Columbia will become more like many other mid-atlantic suburbs. Not a bad place to live, mind you; but not Columbia.
Why is it that all the amenities and benefits of Columbia, Maryland are never explained to the world? It's like we are the hidden library in an old house. The most recent evidence I can find regarding this mystery is a recent post on The Atlantic Cities website about the League of American Bicyclists' "Bicycle Friendly Communities" list. There are over 290 towns listed, and Columbia is not one of them. How could this be? Just off the top of my head, Columbia has:
From the article:
Increasingly, Nesper says, suburban leaders are seeking out a "bicycle friendly" designation because they think it makes their communities more attractive to new businesses and residents. He cites Greenville, South Carolina, as another unexpected place that earned a bronze designation this year. Amenities like good bike infrastructure can help set a suburb or small city apart from its sprawling counterparts.
I'm thinking this is a slam-dunk, no brainer, throw-your-own-metaphor-into-the-blender-and-I-will-hit-puree idea that needs to be done. Today. And if you are wondering why we are not already on the list, someone has to fill out an application. Columbia Association, sharpen your pencils, I will even pay for the postage if necessary.
For those that want to see the complete list, please visit The Atlantic Cities, its a cool website, or click here (PDF).
A few years ago the Columbia Association and Howard Hughes Corporation co-sponsored an event that featured Mr. Christopher Leinberger. (I think we all agreed that Frank Hecker had the best summation of the night.) This event was well attended and by all accounts, Mr. Leinberger held the crowd with his presentation on walkability and tying that locally to Columbia, MD. As part of his presentation, Mr. Leinberger used elements of the movie “Back to the Future” to describe how suburban development evolved between the 1950’s and the 1980’s. For those that have not seen this presentation, it is a pretty engaging lecture.
Recently, the idea of looking at Columbia, MD over a thirty years began to formulate in my head. There is no blockbuster movie that I can use to illustrate the changes that have (and have not) happened, but there is sufficient data to paint a picture.
Although it would be difficult to pin down the “best” year of Columbia’s early beginnings, 1980 was probably near the top. The city was moving away from the deep financial crisis of the mid 1970’s. The Village Centers were thriving. JK’s Pub in Wilde Lake had been open for only two years, but quickly became the “Cheers” of Columbia long before we found out about Sam Malone’s fictitious watering hole in Boston. Most of Wilde Lake, Harper’s Choice, Oakland Mills and Long Reach was built out. Development continued in Owen Brown, Kings Contrivance, and Hickory Ridge. The Columbia Association had 15 pools and one athletic club (although a lease to operate the Supreme Court, a racquetball club (with a full-service bar) was signed that year).
I don’t want to be too much “milk and honey” here. Nationally, the oil crisis, hostage crisis, and stagflation dominated the news. Hammond High School was the scene of cafeteria fights between students. It was not a perfect day in Pleasantville, but day-to-day, Columbia was a good place in 1980.
According to the US Census, Columbia’s population in 1980 was 52,518. Far short of James Rouse’s projection in 1967, but well underway. It is from this point that we begin our story. Based on US Census data, the population of Columbia has grown pretty steady over the last thirty years. Over this time period, the rate of population growth was greatest during the 1980’s. From 1990 - 2010, Columbia has seen an almost linear growth rate.
The number of households has also grown in a similar manner. Once again, we see a higher rate of growth from 1980-1990 and then a slower, almost linear increasing rate from 1990-2010. But there is something more interesting going on here. If we dig deeper, we will find some fundamental changes in Columbia households in the last thirty years.
What we will look at next is the sub-components of Columbia households. At the top level, these can be classified as Family and Non-Family households. The US Census has a specific definition of a family household:
"A family is a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together."
Non-family households are the other broad category of living arrangements. Because the number of group quarter buildings in Columbia is very, very few; non-family households can be considered as those households in which the householder lives alone or has roommates. In the graph below, the total number of households line is included as reference. Below the total households line are the family households (red) and non-family households (yellow) lines. As we have seen so far, each subcomponent has shown a steady increase in each household type over the last thirty years.
Within the Family Household designation, the US Census further breaks down these households into four types: Married Couples, Married Couples with own Children, Single Householder with own children and Single Householder with other family. The term “own children” is defined as follows:
A never-married child under 18 years who is a son or daughter by birth, a step child, or an adopted child of the householder. In certain tabulations, own children are further classified as living with two parents or with one parent only.
In the discussion and graphs below, I will be referring to married with kids households. This is shorthand and its usage refers back to the above definition.
The graph below shows how the Columbia married households have changed over the last thirty years.
I call your attention to the green line in the above graph. This line is unique in our analysis. All other 30-year trend lines have shown an increasing characteristic. The green line above is the only one that is different. If you take a close look at the line, it is in fact decreasing. In 1990, Columbia had 9,178 married with kids households. in 2010, there were 8,981 households with children. In fact, over the last thirty years, the number of married with kids households has increased from 7,756 to 9,178. If you average that over thirty years, it translates into about 48 families (net) per year.
This is not exclusive to Columbian married with kids households. A similar trend can be seen with single parent households.
To be as fair as possible, the graph below shows the same married with kids data, but over a much tighter range.
Although some may find solace in the above graph, the slow multi-decade decline of the family in Columbia, MD is a cold reality. There is something more to consider here. If this characteristic happened in a community that had the same number of housing units over time, it would be troubling; however, this has happened in a community in which the number of households has grown every year. In 1980, there were 17,965 households. By 2010, the number of households in Columbia had more than doubled to 39,562. If you look at the above graph by itself, it looks like the number of married with kids households had a pretty healthy increase from 1980-1990. However, during that same time period, the number of households grew even quicker. Another dynamic to consider is that many of the Columbia pioneers that settled here in the early 1970's either brought kids with them or had kids in those early years. During the 1980's many of these children (myself included) graduated high school and went on to pursue their own adult lives. The effect was that many of the households that started the 1980's as married with kids households ended the decade as married couple/ no kids households. So the percentage of married with kids households dropped by its fastest rate in the 1980's and by the end of the 1990's, married with kids households occupied an even fewer percentage of houses in Columbia. To get a sense of this, consider the graph below.
Some other items to consider: Not every household constructed over the last thirty years could accommodate a family. In fact, a lot of the housing built in the Columbia over the last ten years has been exclusively for 55+. However, a thirty year downward trend is not a sign of a healthy community. For the sake of comparison, I plotted the married with kids households in Howard County vs. Columbia for the same time period.
From the above graph, it is pretty clear that while the married with kids population has stagnated in Columbia over the last thirty years, families have been moving to Howard County as a whole. To get a better idea of how this county-wide trend, I subtracted out the Columbia contribution to the Howard County married with kids segment.
And that's when I figured I had to share this information. Columbia has always had a belief. The way the story goes is that back in the late 1960's and early 1970's, the Rouse Company marketed Columbia up and down the east coast. Early adapters that identified with what Rouse was trying to do here came and put down roots. It was then thought, and repeated often, that without the marketing families would find be attracted to Columbia because of the good school system. Although I am sure there are plenty of families out there that moved to Columbia for those reasons, the number of families have been barely been able to keep ahead of 1980 levels. On the other hand, it seems that lots of families have been attracted to the county as a whole. The above graph shows that in 1980, Columbia and Howard County (excepting the houses in Columbia) had an almost equal number of married with kids households. Since then, Howard County has seen a lot of families move in and Columbia has not. Columbia, it is time that we sat down and had a conversation. In order for this town to thrive, we need to attract all types of households, and in particular families with kids.