Balto. Co. eyes grant to homebuyers Council likely to OK state program tonight, but seek proof of value

Old neighborhoods targeted

County stake $10,000

Baltimore authorized $300,000 in incentives

November 03, 1997|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

An experimental grant program designed to encourage workers to buy homes near their jobs -- already approved in Baltimore -- is raising questions in Baltimore County, where officials want assurances that their money won't be wasted.

County Council members are likely to approve the county's financial participation in the state program tonight, but they plan to demand proof that the money -- $3,000 for a homebuyer's expenses -- is crucial in prompting workers to move to older neighborhoods.

"I buy into the idea of getting people to live closer to where they work," said County Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican. "But how do we know they won't choose to live there anyway?"

The Live Near Your Work program is part of Maryland's effort to rein in suburban sprawl, revitalize older neighborhoods and reduce highway traffic.

Under the program, the state, localities and companies each contribute $1,000 to pay closing costs and other expenses for workers buying homes near their jobs. Statewide, up to 300 workers can participate.

Twenty-one employers and seven localities have agreed to participate, but only in Baltimore County has the program drawn criticism.

One employer, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has agreed to participate, making the program available to 10 full-time employees who buy homes in Catonsville, Arbutus, Lansdowne or Baltimore Highlands.

"This is a fairly inexpensive way to encourage people to live in older neighborhoods," said Steve Lafferty, manager of neighborhood revitalization in the county, which has made community conservation a priority. The county would contribute up to $10,000 for the program.

But council members aren't sure the program would achieve what it promises.

County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Randallstown-Pikesville Democrat, asked, "Is a $3,000 incentive to someone buying a $250,000 house going to make a difference? Are we wasting money?"

Kamenetz intends to vote for the program but will watch closely to see that the spending is justified before voting to renew or extend it next year.

Although the measure is expected to pass, it may be amended to require recipients to stay in their jobs for three years or repay the money. The county already intends to require buyers to live in their houses for at least three years.

The program triggered little controversy in other localities, although some stipulated a minimum time that buyers would have to live in the homes.

George Andreve, manager of the Hagerstown Community Development Department, said, "The city had no problem with it." Hagerstown earmarked $10,000 for the program and enlisted two companies willing to put up $5,000 each in hopes of providing grants to 10 homebuyers.

"Our City Council was willing to give more money if we could find more employers willing to match it," Andreve said.

The College Park council grumbled a bit about limiting the program to employees of the University of Maryland, College Park, but with only $5,000 at stake, approved the program without much debate, said Dan Trimble, the city's economic development coordinator.

College Park put no restrictions on the money so the program would be easier to administer, he said.

Baltimore, which already has other homeownership incentives, appears to be the program's most ardent supporter. While the county has debated contributing $10,000 to help 10 homebuyers, Baltimore appropriated $300,000 to encourage hundreds of workers to buy homes in the city.

Eight city employers -- all colleges or health care providers -- are participating in the program, which so far has helped eight workers buy homes. Applications from 12 others are pending.

Judith Heck, a Johns Hopkins University employee who received one of the grants, said the money helped her buy a Hampden rowhouse sooner.

"It made a huge difference to me," she said. "It allowed me to use my money toward the house instead of toward closing."

The city's participation came without debate, and officials even appropriated $100,000 more than the state's $200,000 grant in hopes of inspiring the state to give more.

The City Council put no restrictions on recipients. It allowed participating employers -- including Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore -- to define the neighborhoods where workers must buy.

"We left the major decisions up to each employer," said Thomas H. Jaudon, chief of Baltimore's Home Ownership Institute. "They screen the employees to make sure they are legitimate employees."

Unlike the county, Jaudon said, the city did not want to require residents to live in a house for a certain number of years for fear of discouraging move-up buying. Nor did the city want to wade into a legal or administrative morass by requiring grant recipients to remain with their companies for a specified time.

And finally, the city decided to be lenient because it is desperate to attract homebuyers.

"We have been losing people," Jaudon said. "We have to do something."

Pub Date: 11/03/97

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