Wanted: new homeowners Program: A state grant will help county offer a 4 percent interest rate on homes in older villages so renters can make the move to ownership.

December 21, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

When Leonard S. Vaughan looks at the corner house in the Bryant Square neighborhood of Columbia's Wilde Lake village, he doesn't see a dilapidated place with overgrown ivy, decaying stucco and cracked windows.

Instead, Vaughan, the director of the Howard County Office of Housing and Community Development, sees a house ready to be cleaned up for a family.

He calls it a perfect candidate for part of a $3.5 million state grant to turn renters into homeowners in four of Columbia's oldest villages -- Long Reach, Owen Brown, Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake.

"A lot of people think Columbia is new, but what they forget is that we are 30 years old, and like anybody else, we have middle-aged problems," Vaughan said. "We've got houses like this that need a face lift."

Vaughan said some of the county's $3.5 million will be used to fix up such houses, and the rest will subsidize mortgage interest rates to make them more affordable. The idea is that owners maintain their homes better than renters do.

The state program, part of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth agenda, offers $40 million to 34 Maryland communities for low-interest mortgages to encourage homeownership in older neighborhoods.

The 4 percent subsidized mortgage rate -- the lowest the state has offered -- will be offered to buyers with incomes between $18,000 and $24,000.

High prices

Few people in that income range can afford houses in Howard County, where last year the average price of a single-family home was $173,838 -- the highest in the Baltimore area and third-highest in the state behind Talbot and Montgomery counties.

Census data from 1990 show that for households earning $20,000 or less, only 4 percent of Howard County housing is considered affordable.

But the lower interest rate under the state program -- which means a savings of up to $400 a month on a $100,000 house, according to Vaughan -- is designed to increase the purchasing bTC power of lower-income households. For instance, someone with $18,000, the lowest eligible income, would qualify for a $75,000 mortgage, Vaughan said.

County housing officials say they have received almost 100 inquiries from prospective homebuyers who are renting in Howard or elsewhere. Next month, county housing officials plan to buy 35 to 40 houses with an average cost in the $90,000 range, clean them up and sell them to those qualifying for the low-interest loans.

In Columbia's four designated villages, housing advocates and community leaders hope to improve the aging communities where the number of renters is rapidly increasing. According to census data, the number of rental units in the county has increased almost 20 percent -- mostly in Columbia -- since 1990.

"A lot of people have raised families in the county, and their children are now ready to own a house in [Columbia] and they can't afford it. It's just too expensive," said Vaughan. "This gives us an opportunity to make something of houses and get a homeowner in there who has pride in it."

Few options

There are few places other than Columbia for low- and moderate-income residents to go in Howard County. Thirty years ago, developer James W. Rouse planned to set aside 10 percent of homes in the new town for such residents. Today, Columbia has 80 percent of all subsidized housing in Howard, according to the housing office.

"Rouse had a commitment to people who were schoolteachers, firefighters and service-oriented that they could live here," said Bill Ross, who runs the Affordable Housing Alliance, a nonprofit agency in Columbia's Town Center that helps prospective homeowners with credit problems and tight budgets.

"There are less and less opportunities for these people to purchase homes in the county," Ross said.

The location of the county -- convenient to Baltimore and Washington -- combined with highly regarded public schools and a relatively low crime rate make Howard attractive to prospective homebuyers, driving prices up.

"When you live in Columbia, you pay the price to live here," said Janette Little, a Columbia real estate agent.

Charles Morton, 35, who lives in Baltimore, plans to apply for a loan.

For more than a decade, Morton has driven deliveries for a Burtonsville dry cleaners to Columbia, dreaming often of owning a home in the county but knowing he could not afford it.

"Columbia is like home to me," Morton said. "I've always liked the spirit of Columbia, the people and the community. I've watched it grow, but I've always felt like I couldn't live out here.

"Now, I won't have to rent. I can, hopefully, buy, and best of all, it will be mine."

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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