Lottery offers prize winners can live with

Drawings: The state's richest county is giving moderate-income homebuyers a chance at a new townhouse for half price.

July 15, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Forget the Maryland Lottery. Howard County's got a better one: a chance to buy a new, $240,000 garage townhouse in the state's wealthiest county for half price.

It's a working family's dream, and the odds are a lot better than the state offers, even though only nine houses will be involved in the first drawing. So far, 105 people are on a list of applicants, but dozens more are expected. The drawing is open to people who live or work in Howard and are first-time homebuyers.

Buyers must have incomes between $38,400 and about $50,000, and can get up to $6,000 in help with closing costs from a county program.

"It's a hell of a deal. Anything [housing] is good in Howard County," said county police union President James F. Fitzgerald. County police, he said "are champing at the bit" to buy houses.

The small number of houses highlights one of still-growing Howard's most vexing problems: how to attract Maryland's best and brightest without becoming an enclave only the wealthy can afford. Last month, the average price of a new home in Howard County was $273,478, according to the Howard County Association of Realtors.

"I wish we had more units available, but it's certainly a move in the right direction," County Executive James N. Robey said.

County housing director Leonard S. Vaughan said eight more houses will be built in the same Cherrytree development near Route 216 in southeastern Howard, followed later by more units in two large mixed-use developments in North Laurel and Fulton. Although the first group is small, "the real impact is showing that the program can work and is viable," Vaughan said.

Still, with land prices spiraling higher and low interest rates keeping the housing market hot, civil servants and other middle-income people are being priced out of the Howard market.

"The jobs are here," said Howard fire union President Mike B. Rund, but some county firefighters live in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia, as well as Carroll, Harford and Frederick counties, where home prices are lower.

"A lot of our guys want to live in Howard but can't afford to," he said.

Work on the houses in the Cherrytree development won't begin until late this year, but Vaughan said he wants a list of qualified buyers ready, to keep carrying costs on the new 2,160-square-foot homes as low as possible and to give buyers time to make flooring and color selections. The units, with 2 1/2 bathrooms, a finished basement, and washer and dryer, will go to the lottery winners for $120,000 each. They can move in with $2,000 in cash and one month's payment of $1,056 in reserve, Vaughan said.

Vaughan said he will send applications to anyone interested once the legal ads appear. In order to ensure the houses would look the same as unsubsidized units in the development, the county will use a shared-equity arrangement with the Columbia Housing Corp. to cover costs. The $21,300 deferred loan will be repaid over time, or when the unit is sold.

The next eight units will become available as U.S. Homes, the developer of Cherrytree, completes the 42-acre project. The subsidized houses will be scattered throughout the development, along Route 216 at Route 29 in southeastern Howard County.

As the Rouse Co.'s Emerson development progresses, 60 more moderate-income units will be built there, followed in several years by about 10 percent of the 1,116 houses planned for Maple Lawn Farms, a large mixed-use development planned farther west, in Fulton.

Vaughan said he is working to acquire land along the U.S. 1 corridor for middle-income houses, but progress is slow.

As the county works to revitalize its oldest commercial corridor, Vaughan said, officials must keep in mind that "each [new] business and each commercial use has a need for employees," but without housing, they will remain hard to find.

For his part, Fitzgerald would like to take the suspense out of the exercise.

"They shouldn't have a lottery," he said. "They should just give the nine homes to cops."

Information or to request an application: Christopher Julien in the Howard County housing office, 410-313-6318.

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