A chance to stay in Howard

Lottery: A program helped Cecelia Jones afford a home in an affluent county so her kids can continue to attend top-rated schools.

November 27, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

It was fitting that on Cecelia Jones' first visit as the official owner of her new luxury townhouse in pricey southern Howard County -- which she bought at a fraction of the list price after winning a lottery -- a parade of family followed close behind, leaving their shoes at the front door.

First were Ciera, Tori and Troy, her three teen-age children who had watched the state retirement system accountant struggle through a divorce and climb to financial stability while learning her new trade.

Her mother, Harriet, gave her and the children a place to live that tough first year. Her Aunt Iris gave her a cell phone to keep safe and stay in touch. Her sister Yvonne, the engineer, one of her pillars of emotional and logistic support, was there too, along with her two nieces, Schae, 10, and Benta, 9, and Gregory, her 5-year-old nephew. Others would come later.

At the gathering this week, as the women broke out food and paper plates they had brought to help christen the equipped, but still bare, kitchen, Cecilia gazed around, looking dazed.

"We celebrate over food. It hasn't sunk in yet," she said about how far she has come and the reality of being able to buy a new home in Howard County.

Jones is the fourth of nine winners in Howard County's unusual housing lottery in October last year to take possession of her home -- a living testament to the rarity of middle-income, working people able to afford a new home in Howard, where average prices hover around $300,000. She will move in this weekend.

For the Jones family, the whole episode seems like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's rolled into one big ball of excitement, though Tori, 15, is upset about leaving her old neighborhood friends. Troy, 13, said the developing Scaggsville area in southern Howard is "a long way away" from his familiar Ellicott City haunts.

In Cherrytree Park, the 170-home development near Routes 29 and 216 where Jones' home sits, townhouse prices listed on the U.S. Homes Web site range from $325,000 to $365,000.

But 10 percent of the homes are reserved for moderate-income buyers such as Jones, who will pay $118,700. The county took a second mortgage for $21,300 to help cover the builder's costs and ensure that the 2,160-square-foot, moderately priced homes are indistinguishable from the rest. Another lottery for the remaining eight moderately priced homes -- which will be limited to families with children -- will be scheduled when the development is nearer completion.

Howard officials are particularly proud of Jones because she started out in county public housing more than four years ago. But she worked to qualify for better jobs until she was paying an unsubsidized $1,049-a- month market rent for her three-bedroom apartment off U.S. 40 in west Ellicott City.

Now, as one of the few to win the right to buy under the moderate-income plan, she can afford to stay in Howard and buy a new home, even though her income is between $35,600 and $53,120, the program parameters. Her mortgage will be $21 a month more than her old rent.

"That's what we're trying to do with all of our housing programs -- encourage people to take advantage of educational opportunities so they can become independent of federal and state programs," said Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director.

Although Howard officials celebrate the lottery winners and are happy to see families with children move into places such as Cherrytree, they also lament how few home-buying opportunities there are for civil servants like Jones. The moderate-income-home program is based on the belief that the county will benefit by having housing for all income groups.

"I feel good about myself," Jones said about her long, tough financial climb back from the marital breakup nearly a decade ago. She studied accounting at University of Baltimore, relocated to Howard County, then got the state job that helped provide more opportunities.

"I'm doing what I'm supposed to do. I'm a mother with three kids," she said.

Jones said she was so nervous Tuesday, settlement day, that she couldn't eat. The family visited the house that evening.

During the final presettlement inspection of the house the day before, she said, her sister and aunt, who accompanied her, joked that she was so excited she could never have noticed a flaw anyway.

And although she knows her new neighbors might earn much more money than she does, she is not worried about fitting in.

"My kids interact in school with kids who live in this area," she said, referring to Howard County's general affluence. "I don't have a problem. I'm me. I'm really a very private person."

Jones said she had planned to attend the drawing last year in the County Council chambers, but her son, Troy, had a severe asthma attack and she rushed him to the hospital, where she spent the night, she said.

When she came home the next morning, an answering machine message gave her the good news. "I fell out. I cried," she said, saying, "I can't believe it," about her good fortune.

Without the lottery win, Jones said she would have had to leave Howard County, where she -- like so many others -- came to get her children into the area's top-rated schools.

"I had them in Catholic school" in Baltimore during elementary school before her marriage broke up, she said, but after the split she could not afford that. If the house lottery had not worked, she would have had little choice but to return to the Woodlawn area, where she is less enamored of the schools.

"I wouldn't have had a choice. That was the sad part about it," she said.

Now, Ciera will complete her senior year at Mount Hebron High in June, Jones said, while Tori plans to stay in the county's tech-magnet program at River Hill High, studying for a career in health care. Troy will start high school next year at Reservoir High, near the new house.

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