With luck, moderate housing available

Many workers in county priced out of the market

Howard County

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

Inflation since last year has pushed the official price of a new, moderate-income townhouse in high-rent Howard County up 4.9 percent to $110,600 - which would still be a great price if any were available.

Howard's Housing and Community Development Board voted to approve of the new price last week, but the vote did little except further illustrate Howard's worsening housing market.

The prosperous county's housing is in a prolonged price spiral, and the rental market is tight too, even in the traditionally less expensive southeastern end. And despite years of public and private efforts to provide more affordable homes for county civil servants and midlevel wage earners, successes are few and far between.

With the county's western end off limits to public water and sewer, and annual homebuilding slated to slow from 2,000 to 1,000 units a year by decade's end, land for building is getting scarce - and therefore expensive.

"We have people living in Harford, Carroll, and Frederick County for housing. It significantly increases commuting time," said Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association. Tired of long commutes, some teachers trade their Howard jobs for work in their home counties, Staub said. The same is true of other civil servants, officials have said.

The first handful of moderately priced new homes in Howard will be part of the proposed Cherrytree Park development in Scaggsville that is scheduled to begin construction late this year. The first nine buyers - who will get a $240,000 garage townhouse, with extras such as 2 1/2 baths, a finished basement, and a washer and dryer for $120,000 - will be chosen by lottery. Buyers must have incomes no higher than 80 percent of the median income for the Baltimore area - about $50,000 a year.

"We could probably line up 100 or 200 teachers for the lottery. It's an issue. Very few teachers in their first few years can afford a $240,000 townhouse, though $120,000 is dramatically affordable. Howard County hires over 400 teachers a year," Staub said.

More units planned

Cherrytree's units will be followed during the next few years by about 60 units in the Rouse Co.'s Emerson development that is just getting under way along Route 216, and by roughly 10 percent of Maple Lawn Farm's residential 1,116 units, to be built in Fulton.

Staub said the rental market in Howard County is tough to crack. It's "the biggest thing we hear about in terms of housing from younger teachers," he said.

County housing director Leonard S. Vaughan said that to keep the moderately priced units indistinguishable from the others in a development, the county is planning a "shared equity" arrangement with a third-party nonprofit corporation.

That entity, likely the Columbia Housing Corp., will pay the extra $20,000 to $30,000 it costs to build a 2,160-square-foot townhouse that will be mixed with market-priced units in each row of homes. A standard moderate-income unit would be no larger than 1,500 square feet.

"We've decided to pay the extra money and get the better unit," he said.

Whenever a buyer moves or sells the home, the third party group would recoup its investment.

Similarly, if a family's income increases enough, they can buy the nonprofit group's and the county's share and take full ownership. But the units may not be resold at market rate, unless another replacement affordable unit is ready in that development, Vaughan told the board.

Land scarce

Elsewhere, the county is working to buy land in Guilford for more moderate-income detached, single-family homes, but that has proved tricky.

Most open county land is either too expensive or has been passed over by builders because of problems such as wetlands, streams, steep hills or inaccessibility.

Wetlands are a problem on the Guilford land the county is trying to buy, Vaughan said, limiting the number of new homes the land can accommodate and driving up the per-unit cost.

Because of those factors, Vaughan said, "the whole U.S. 1 corridor is where a lot of this will play out."

Staub said high prices are shutting single-income teachers out. "The only kind of housing available in Columbia would be condominium units. It is a concern," he said.

Staub lives in Carroll because his wife teaches there, and he says he can vouch for the commuters' woes. Coming off eastbound Route 32 to Route 108 one recent morning, he was caught in gridlock as River Hill High School students clogged the road on their way to classes.

"I must have spent 15 minutes sitting, waiting to get past River Hill [High]," he said.

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