House prices shut out the middle class 'Affordable' means more expensive in the suburbs

September 22, 1991|By Edward Gunts

The recent debate over affordable housing in Owings Mills illustrates a region-wide problem: There's a growing supply of affordable housing in the city of Baltimore but practically none coming on line in fast-growing suburbs. And if current growth patterns continue, some entire counties may soon be out of reach for middle- as well as low-income families.

That's a dramatic change for the metropolitan Baltimore market, long known for row houses with marble steps and low prices.

High land costs, builders say, are the single greatest obstacle to bringing affordable housing to high-growth suburbs.

Other factors include high hookup fees and other government service charges, as well as zoning regulations that prohibit high-density housing.

Meanwhile, the term "affordable" has come to mean different things in different localities, which both reveals and obscures the market economics at play in each area.

To people in Baltimore, "affordable housing" means new housing costing as little as $33,000 for people who typically earn less than 80 percent of the median income. In the city's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, James Rouse's Enterprise Foundation and its partners are building housing that can be purchased for $37,000 by the "working poor," people earning as little as $11,000 a year.

But in the suburbs within a half-hour drive of Baltimore, "affordable" has become a synonym for entry-level housing for ,, first-time buyers.

In Baltimore County, for example, it tends to mean $80,000 to $100,000 houses or condominiums for people who earn the median income for the county, about $43,500 for a family.

In a plan released last week, developers of the 5,500-unit Owings Mills New Town community said that at least 7 percent of their residences will be affordable to families at or just below the median income level.

But no housing can be provided for truly low-income residents, they said, because government subsidies aren't available.

That's a significant shift of position from 1979, when county officials promised that growth areas such as Owings Mills and White Marsh would provide housing for low-income residents.

And in Howard County, "affordable housing" is often used to describe residences that are low in price compared to others in the market -- such as Mark Building Company's $145,000 detached houses in Columbia -- but still out of reach of many people.

That reflects the county's proximity to Washington, where housing prices are much higher on average than in Baltimore.

"It all depends what your definition of affordable housing is," said Terry Rubenstein, executive vice president of the company building Owings Mills New Town.

"It's how you define it and who you're building for. That's the crux of the issue."

What costs what

The cost of new housing can be broken into several categories: materials, or "sticks and bricks"; labor; costs of land and site development; developers' profit; and soft costs such as brokers' fees and marketing.

Although housing types vary, the most common type of affordable house is the town house.

A typical figure for the labor and materials needed to build a bare-bones, three-bedroom, two-bathroom town house, rising three stories and measuring 18 feet wide by 34 feet deep, is about $41,000, says Daniel P. Henson III, a senior partner of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, the largest home builder in Baltimore.

That's just about what it cost for the houses his company built at Frederick Heights, a 122-unit development off Frederick Avenue in West Baltimore.

The cost of building that town house is about the same whether it is in the city or the county, he said. Still, there are many similar town houses in Baltimore County that cost an additional $10,000, $20,000 or more to build.

The difference is largely due to the cost of land.

For example, he said, the land for each unit at Frederick Heights cost about $3,000. But the average cost for a similar-sized town house lot in Baltimore County would be about five times the cost of the city lot, or about $15,000.

In the county, builders must often spend money on additional issues, such as preserving wetlands. And because the public works infrastructure is not always in place to serve county parcels, Mr. Henson said, the builder may have to build roads and sewers.

But the biggest problem of all, he said, is that many counties have tried to control growth by zoning property to prohibit high-density development.

For example, land in Owings Mills may cost $250,000 an acre. But it may be zoned so that only six houses can be built per acre, making the land cost for each house more than $40,000.

"The counties are generally no-growth," Mr. Henson said.

"Owings Mills is a perfect example of a no-growth approach that tries to fend you off by saying, 'We're going to charge you $7,000 per house to hook up each house to the county water, which is actually the city water. . . .'

"The counties are just not encouraging people to build affordable housing."

Means to reduce costs

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