Columbia, envisioned as a model for racial and socioeconomic integration when it was founded more than 50 years ago, is experiencing “creeping segregation” and a shortage of affordable housing, according to a new study.
The report, published last week by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, called for leaders to make the community a more affordable place to live “so that Columbia really can once again be an example for the entire country in diversity and opportunity.”
Columbia was created in the 1960s as a planned community by real estate developer James Rouse, the father of the modern-day shopping mall, who remains a revered figure in the community nearly three decades after his death.
Rouse’s original vision for Columbia was for a racially and economically diverse community during a time of stark segregation in America, according to historian David Stebenne, co-author of “New City Upon A Hill: A History of Columbia, Maryland.” The first child born in Columbia was to an interracial couple, who moved to the community because it was the only place they could purchase a home together, Stebenne said.
A few years after the founding of Columbia, the family of one of the authors of the new report, Dedrick Asante-Muhammad, moved there. His white mother and Black father had heard Columbia was welcoming to interracial households, so they relocated there from New York City when Asante-Muhammad was one year old, he said. Other families that flocked to the community in its early days were also drawn by Rouse’s ideals.
The development company that planned Columbia “initially succeeded in fostering an uncommonly integrated community,” the report says, with low levels of segregation and evenly distributed Black and white populations that had frequent opportunities to interact with one another at the neighborhood level.
Today, Columbia is more diverse than ever. Census figures show the community is 49% white and 28% Black, with fast-growing Asian (13%) and Hispanic or Latino (9%) populations. However, economic and racial disparities have grown, the study found.
“The troubling thing we found was an increasing or creeping segregation that appears to be occurring in Columbia with the isolation of African Americans from the white community and decrease of exposure between racial groups in Columbia,” said Bruce Mitchell, senior research analyst at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition and lead writer on the study.
A driver of segregation is the way newer segments of the community were developed in Columbia, the report says. Columbia is made up of 10 “villages” that were developed between 1966 and 1990. Older villages included a mix of apartments, townhouses, single-family homes and some affordable housing; newer villages have primarily single-family homes and little affordable housing.
Though the median income for Black households is higher in Columbia than it is nationally, it’s lower than the median household income for other racial and ethnic groups in Columbia. Homeownership rates among Black residents (52%) are lower than for white residents (76.5%), making it more likely for Black residents to cluster in areas with more apartments, the report says.
Housing in Columbia has grown increasingly expensive, with the median home value now more than $409,000 — more affordable than the median Howard County home by about $55,000, but more expensive than the national median of $299,000.
Another challenge is that few residents are interested in bringing more low-income residents to Columbia, Asante-Muhammad said.
“Now people are coming, as for most suburbs, to be in a safe, higher-income area with good schools,” he said, and the primary motivator is no longer participating in Rouse’s experiment of creating “true, broad diversity and inclusion.”
The release of the report coincides with a recent renewal of an ongoing conversation about racial diversity, equity and inclusion in the community.
The CEO and president of the Columbia Association, Lakey Boyd, recently resigned after months of conflict with the board, which she said stemmed from unhappiness with her efforts to engage with previously overlooked parts of the increasingly diverse community. The association, which has a $70 million budget and provides a variety of amenities and services, including day care, athletic facilities, recreational trails and arts programming, is the closest thing the unincorporated community has to a city government.
Board members have declined to speak in detail about disagreements between Boyd and the board, citing personnel issues. However, board member Alan Klein told The Baltimore Banner that he and his colleagues supported Boyd’s work with diversity and inclusion in the community and there were other issues at hand — which Klein said he couldn’t discuss — that created tension and led to Boyd’s eventual resignation.
“The claim has been made that us old white guys” didn’t want those changes, Klein said, and “nothing was further from the truth.”
Regardless of what was at the heart of the clash between Boyd and the board, the controversy has brought discussions of race and racism to the forefront of public conversations.
Scores of residents who supported Boyd showed up at meetings to criticize the board, with some raising concerns about racism in Columbia and what they saw as a disconnect between the Columbia Association’s all-white board and the community that its members were elected to represent. A group of residents leading a recall effort say the current board does not represent the diversity of Columbia.
Co-author Asante-Muhammad, chief of membership, policy and equity at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, said the report fits into this broader conversation.
“I think it is important there be much greater racial diversity in the Columbia Association,” he said. “But it’s equally important that we have a Columbia Association that is dedicated to that economic diversity that really will be the underpinning to allow Columbia to maintain and strengthen its reputation as being an inclusive space.”
Klein said he and others at the Columbia Association have long been supporters of creating more housing in Columbia that serves a broad socioeconomic spectrum. Fellow board member and real estate agent Lin Eagan agreed there should be more affordable housing in the community.
Since Columbia is an unincorporated community, land use and zoning decisions are made at the Howard County level, Klein said, and all the Columbia Association can do is use its “bully pulpit” to weigh in.
“We need to reiterate our support and insistence that a full spectrum of housing be provided across Columbia. ... It has to meet Rouse’s vision of janitor and executive living next to each other,” Klein said, adding that the Columbia Association is participating in HoCo By Design, the county’s ongoing update to its general plan that guides land use, growth and development decisions.
“The collective work is far from over” and Columbia needs to constantly reassess and evolve, said Dannika Rynes, senior manager of media relations and communications for the Columbia Association, in an emailed statement.
“To do that effectively, we must continue to hear from all the different voices that exist,” the statement said. “Columbia Association encourages everyone to share their perspective and engage with our organization so we can continue to serve and improve the quality of life for all people who live in and experience this special community.”
Nick Finio, associate director of the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth, said the data in the new report tracks with findings by other researchers. “If you were to do this in another suburban chunk in central Maryland, you’d probably find similar results,” Finio said.
Most suburbs have not integrated different housing types, he said, and it’s likely leading to increasing income and racial segregation in other parts of the state and country, as well.
Finio said that when asked, most people will say they support more affordable housing. But it gets more complicated once you drill down.
“Where the rubber meets the road is where the housing gets built,” he said. “That’s where the conflict starts to happen. You’re seeing that play out everywhere in Central Maryland.”
This story has been updated with a comment from the Columbia Association.