Affordable housing becoming a challenge

Wetlands on site in Savage may limit lots and boost cost

March 12, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Building homes in Howard County that ordinary people can afford is getting harder by the day, as the county's latest attempt shows.

With prices for new, detached houses routinely above $300,000, Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing administrator, is working on a plan to build several dozen at half that price, but wetlands on the site chosen in Savage could limit the number of houses - putting the project in jeopardy.

If not enough houses can be built, the per-lot cost might be too high for the deal to work, Vaughan explained.

The problems are typical of what every developer is encountering in Howard County after more than 30 years of rapid growth, Vaughan said. The easiest-to-develop parcels zoned for housing are gone, and with no public utilities in the western county, builders are scouring the county's east end for troubled sections that have been passed over. Competition for those lots is driving up the price of land, making low- and moderate-income projects much harder to bring to completion.

At the same time, county employees and other middle-income workers often cannot afford to buy new detached houses where they work, which means they must go to Carroll and Frederick counties and beyond, perpetuating suburban sprawl.

Average prices for all new Howard housing have jumped 26.7 percent in the past four years, and the average price of single-family, detached houses increased 34 percent, to $315,500, last year, according to the latest county figures.

The last county attempt to buy land for affordable housing failed in September when a deal for 7.2 acres in Elkridge was called off because of methane gas discovered there.

"If the land weren't difficult, it would have been built on before," Vaughan noted. To satisfy county regulations, each house in the current proposal must be on a lot of at least 8,400 square feet, with 30 percent of the land reserved for open space.

The three to four dozen three-bedroom houses the county would like to see rise on 13.5 acres of wooded land along Jones Road would sell for about $150,000 each, Vaughan said - if things work out. Now, that is uncertain and no sales contracts have been signed

Vaughan said that if the deal goes ahead, the county Housing Commission would buy the land and contract with a developer to build the houses. The county would retain ownership until the units are sold.

"I think we're close, but we're not getting the engineering yield," Vaughan said, referring to the number of lots needed to keep the price in check. He refused to reveal what the county hopes to pay for the land.

The four parcels - which have a total assessed value of $629,000, according to state tax records - are north of Guilford Road, between Interstate 95 and U.S. 1, in an area where large homes are being built on nearly every available lot.

The county has been talking for months with Charles A. Reese, who owns three parcels. The county also wants to buy a fourth that belongs to Frank Manago and his family, who live in the neighborhood. Manago said a stream runs through the property, which "wasn't up for sale," though the family "might be interested" in selling.

In a legal notice published in newspapers March 5, the county advertised the exact pieces it wants to buy. The county was required to place the ad under federal regulations, Vaughan said, because it wants to use $125,000 in federal block grant money to help complete the purchase.

Vaughan said County Executive James N. Robey has been pushing for more affordable housing, even as new house prices jumped an average 22 percent last year.

"I think we do a decent job providing low-income housing. Where we come up short is moderate-income housing for civil servants," Robey said.

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat who represents the area in which the lots are located, also praised Vaughan's effort.

"Every little bit helps. We're not reaching what was targeted [for lower-priced housing] 10 years ago or more," he said.

Several neighbors of the parcels in question worry that dozens of new homes might bring intolerable traffic or storm water runoff to their quiet, isolated community.

"We're sort of bottlenecked in here. We only have one way out," said Patricia Edley, 74, who has lived for 22 years on Rose Lane, on the western side of the woods. She said runoff keeps much of the land wet when it storms, and she worries about more problems if building occurs.

Ellen Morgan, 53, who lives on Jones Road, on the eastern edge of the woods, said she, too, is worried about traffic.

"This is a quiet community. I wouldn't want it opened up a lot," she said.

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