Howard officials aspire to buy 7-acre property

Mid-income families in mind for homes on Elkridge plot

September 17, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Howard County housing officials are glowing with pride over a rare victory in their struggle to create new homes for families with moderate incomes.

They say it's tough to find land for sale in the area, and even tougher to pay for it - which is why they're delighted to have a contract to buy 7.22 acres in Elkridge on which they plan to build subsidized houses.

The price is right, said Leonard S. Vaughan, the administrator for the Howard County Office of Housing and Community Development.

For $325,000 - which would pay for the property and related costs such as engineering and site assessment - officials expect to have enough space for up to 20 single-family houses.

"The owner has to sell quickly," Vaughan said. "It's a great price."

The Howard County Housing and Community Development Board recommended Thursday night that County Executive James N. Robey authorize a grant to pay for the purchase.

A separate panel, the Howard County Housing Commission, will vote tomorrow night on whether to officially acquire the property.

Housing board member John F. Schulze thinks the price gives a "compelling reason" to buy.

"You just don't find that kind of land in Howard County," he told the rest of the board last week.

The contract isn't scheduled to close until Sept. 28, and Vaughan said he isn't permitted to name the landowner yet. But the parcel is off Old Washington Boulevard, north of the old Elkridge Elementary School.

Affordable housing is in short supply in the county, where land prices - and house values - are climbing.

Schulze, who is vice president of Pizza Hut of Maryland, said that his managers make between $25,000 and $40,000 a year but that many can't afford a home in the area.

Instead, he said, they drive long distances to work.

"The manager at our Clarksville store lives in Pennsylvania," he said.

Moderate earners targeted

The Elkridge houses would be targeted at families who make no more than 80 percent of the area's median salary of about $66,000, Vaughan said. That includes many teachers, police officers and other civil servants.

Eligible families would be able to buy the houses for less than the cost of building them.

Vaughan expects the price of development to be about $170,000 to $180,000 per house - although the market value will likely be as high as $230,000, he said.

Under the arrangement, the Housing Commission will have partial ownership of the properties. When a family sells a house, a percentage of the price will go back to the commission, which can reinvest the money elsewhere.

Dissenting vote

The housing board was not universally happy with the plan, however.

Board member Deborah A. Tolson voted against recommending the purchase.

She said she is concerned that the houses will be sold only to people with moderate incomes, and she wants to include people with incomes between $20,000 and $30,000.

"We need to focus on the entire community, which includes low income," she said.

Other board members, though, were wary of requiring a mix of moderate- and low-income housing in case the Housing Commission doesn't have the money to more heavily subsidize some houses.

"Not having that money currently, we can't do that," said board Chairman Peter Morgan, who has been nominated for a Housing Commission post next year. "But we potentially could have that money next year."

After the 6-1 vote, Vaughan told Tolson, "I guarantee the commission will make it as affordable as possible."

Lengthy process

But there could be a wait in store.

Part of what has driven up the price of housing - Howard County's well-regarded schools - has also made the process of building new homes a lengthier one.

County regulations require that new home construction be temporarily halted in areas with very crowded schools, and Elkridge Elementary is filled to capacity with about 820 students.

"It could be up to four years before this is able to go ahead," Vaughan said.

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