On the lot next to Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, residents are moving into two new “luxury-style” apartment buildings, complete with energy-efficient appliances, large windows and walk-in closets.

The two buildings have risen out of the ashes of the past. In 2022, the old affordable housing complex — a 58-unit structure formerly known as Roslyn Rise — was torn down to make way for the next chapter. The community now has a new name, Legacy at Twin Rivers, and nearly 100 more units to show for it.

Enterprise Community Development — a nonprofit development firm founded in 1982 by James Rouse, the visionary behind Columbia — purchased the site in 2017 and decided to tear the building down. In an era defined by fierce competition for housing, too few affordable units and not enough land, Enterprise embarked on a path that more affordable housing developers are traversing: combining density with subsidies in big, luxurious-looking buildings.

The goal, developers say, is to turn what’s thought of as “affordable housing” on its head — and make it seamless with surrounding communities and attractive to residents of various income brackets.

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The mixed-income Legacy at Twin Rivers in Columbia last month. (Eric Thompson)

“This is brand-spankin’ new everything,” Enterprise’s Senior Real Estate Development Manager Mackenzie Kisiel said during a walk-through of one of the two new buildings in March. “The previous community was wonderful: affordable housing in a great community. But it didn’t serve anyone’s needs anymore.”

More of these projects are in the pipeline throughout the Baltimore region as calls for solutions to fix Maryland’s dual housing supply and affordability crises grow louder. And as affordable housing development becomes more expensive, state and local governments are helping cover the costs.

For some, affordable housing’s rebrand is long overdue. The concept of government-subsidized housing first took off in the 1930s as a response to the Great Depression, and it powered the building of massive complexes that were designed to house people who were out of work.

But by the 1970s, the concept fell out of favor after the social and financial costs began to mount. Government funding dried up and affordable housing residents found themselves segregated along lines of race and class.

Some of the traditional “public housing” complexes — such as Perkins Homes in Baltimore — have since been torn down, and more money has shifted instead to housing vouchers that allow people to live in a wider range of communities under private landlords. Many of the traditional public housing complexes that exist today have large backlogs of unresolved maintenance problems, in large part due to the federal government’s failure to allocate enough money toward its own housing.

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Maintaining and adding affordable housing in more neighborhoods like Columbia can help reduce concentrations of poverty, supporters say.

“It’s mixed-income developments like this one that keep people housed, communities strong and help connect folks to things that they need for jobs, good schools, transportation access, health care service,” said Adrianne Todman, acting secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, at a ribbon cutting event for the Columbia project in April.

Todman called the new development an example that others should emulate.

“No one would ever look at this and think HUD,” she said. “They look and think, what a great place to live.”

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore’s administration’s proposed budget — set to take effect July 1 — allocates $361 million for housing and community development projects that would increase the stock of “quality and affordable housing,” a nearly $140 million increase from the year prior. Of that, $110 million is meant to support production of affordable rental housing, with projects like Legacy at Twin Rivers.

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Speaking to a crowded room of affordable housing promoters from across Maryland, state Department of Housing and Community Development Secretary Jake Day said last year that affordable housing projects are now almost always contingent upon state support.

Alemseged Desta, a resident of Legacy at Twin Rivers, speaks during the site's ribbon cutting ceremony in April while acting and former HUD secretaries Adrianne Todman, left, and Shaun Donovan, now CEO and President of Enterprise Community Partners, listen. (Eric Thompson)

“We understand that projects essentially don’t happen, affordable housing doesn’t get built in Maryland, without these tools,” Day said at the Maryland Affordable Housing Coalition’s annual meeting in November. “So we need to grow that investment.”

Housing across the affordability spectrum took a hit during the coronavirus pandemic as interest rates, material costs and demand for homes soared. Meanwhile, with Maryland localities exerting enormous influence over their counties’ zoning codes, large quantities of new units have struggled to get greenlit.

The state’s total housing deficit has been estimated at a range of 96,000 to 150,000 units.

This helps explain why the Enterprise bought the Roslyn Rise site, which already had been zoned to fit an apartment building. The team credited financial support from local, state and the federal government with ensuring the Legacy at Twin Rivers project could be financially viable.

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The Columbia project’s funding formula is complicated and comes from a number of different sources — including a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal with Howard County that the County Council approved in 2021, which lowers the tax bill.

The team also is utilizing Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, which states receive via the federal government and can allocate to projects with certain income and rent limits.

To receive the credits, projects must compete — with good locations, qualified developers, skilled contractors and management companies that can take the properties over when people start moving in. They also need to adhere to certain standards, including materials and finishes, square footage and the environment.

“You’re seeing housing products that look more luxury-like because of those requirements, and the desire to have affordable housing have lower maintenance costs than they used to,” said Peter Engel, executive director of the Howard County Housing Commission, the county’s public housing authority. “The tradeoff is: They cost more to build, so the affordable housing dollars don’t go as far.”

The key, Engel said, is density, which can help make affordable housing projects more financially feasible. And thanks to a new state bill that allows more density for some developments, people can expect to see taller buildings with more residents in certain areas of Maryland.

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“To the extent you build more overall,” Engel said, “it brings down the costs.”

About half of the Roslyn Rise community — all of whom were relocated to accommodate the new construction — will return as Legacy at Twin Rivers residents. The new building will feature 52 market-rate units and 101 units for households earning between 50% and 80% of the area median income, which the state and federal government define as between $60,000 and $95,000 for a four-person household. One to four-bedroom layouts are available, as is a “homework room” for school-aged children that will also house some after-school programming.

The affordable units will be interspersed throughout each of the two buildings, and each apartment is designed exactly the same. Ultimately, Enterprise’s Kisiel said, housing voucher recipients and market-rate households will live in identical conditions.

One returning resident, Alemseged Desta, said he initially had reservations about living in Columbia. He told a crowd gathered at the site in mid-April that the hassle of moving out of Roslyn Rise and back into Legacy, along with his four children, has been worth the hassle, though.

“Thank you, he said, “for bringing us back to where we belong.”

Clarification: This story has been updated with new budget numbers from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development provided after publication.

Hallie Miller covers housing for The Baltimore Banner. She's previously covered city and regional services, business and health at both The Banner and The Baltimore Sun.

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