For many in middle class, home isn't where the job is

Housing: Area leaders turn focus to workers priced out of the market.

March 31, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

When Ralph Greaves joined the Anne Arundel County police force in 1994, he figured he would keep his South Baltimore townhouse for a few years and then move his family to a nice place with a big yard close to work.

But by the time Greaves began looking in 2002, the houses that he expected would cost $200,000 were selling for $300,000. That was too much.

So Greaves looked at real estate listings in Harford and Carroll counties. Same story. He eventually bought a house on 1.5 acres for $209,000 - in Shrewsbury, Pa. "That's all that's out there anymore for the working stiff," Greaves said.

Around the Baltimore and Washington suburbs, young professionals, teachers, police officers and firefighters are struggling to find homes they can afford. Many are forced to move out of the state or relocate to traditionally rural sections of southern and western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

Local governments have long tried to expand housing opportunities for low-income families, but they are increasingly focusing on helping those with moderate incomes.

Montgomery County requires developers to include more affordable houses in new subdivisions. Howard requires moderately priced units to be included in some types of developments. Others, such as Carroll and Harford, are only beginning to wrestle with a lack of "workforce housing."

In Anne Arundel, where housing prices have shot up faster than in any other part of the Baltimore area, officials are scrambling to set new policies.

Some say the county should require all subdivisions to include less-expensive homes. Developers, wary of such government controls, say the county should streamline its approval process for large condominium and townhouse projects. Others say the focus should be on rehabilitating existing neighborhoods.

A rapid population rise and stagnating salaries for the middle class have made workforce housing a national problem, said John McIlwain, a housing expert at the Washington-based Urban Land Institute. The problem will grow more serious over the next 10 or 15 years, he predicted.

"There's no public policy approach I've seen that comes close to meeting the need," he said.

Rising prices

Researchers generally say a family can afford a house priced at three times its annual income. In Anne Arundel, the median family income is about $70,000. However, the average home price is almost $300,000. The problem is even more acute in Annapolis, where, for example, only a handful of the city's more than 100 police officers live in town.

County leaders, developers and groups representing firefighters, teachers and police officers agree that Anne Arundel is facing a serious shortage of workforce housing. But they disagree on what it means.

Some developers say $250,000 houses qualify. But firefighters and police officers say they are looking in the $200,000 range or lower.

Annapolis real estate consultant Brenda Desjardins said the county did not face a shortage of workforce housing until recent years. A growing population of Baltimore and Washington commuters has driven home prices in many areas from around $200,000 to the $400,000 range, with the average sale price in the county hitting $328,000 in January.

Varied approaches

Anne Arundel's problem is perhaps most like Howard's. Both are high-priced bedroom communities for Baltimore and Washington. Howard officials said they recognized in the 1990s that moderate-income families were being priced out of many neighborhoods.

"You have so many people who grew up in the county, and now their parents' houses are worth $500,000," said Kevin Kelehan, chairman of Howard's Housing Commission. "And they can't come back to the county to work. They're making good money, but good money doesn't pay a $1,500 mortgage."

Baltimore County, by comparison, features more established communities where housing costs are lower.

"We've had a lot of success marketing those communities, and people seem pleased with the values they're getting," said Mary Harvey, director of community conservation, who pointed to Hillendale, Dundalk and Arbutus as examples.

Anne Arundel officials say they hope to market communities such as Glen Burnie, Brooklyn Park and Harundale in a similar fashion.

Meanwhile, Carroll and Harford counties are just beginning to see housing prices rise beyond the affordability point for teachers, police officers and firefighters. Though Harford offers low-interest loans to low- and moderate-income homebuyers, neither it nor Carroll has a policy on workforce housing.

"I think we still have plenty of affordable housing, and that's why we're growing so fast," said Amey Epstein, Harford's housing director.

`Nearly impossible'

At the Anne Arundel County police station where Greaves works, he is hardly alone in his frustrations about housing. As he spoke, several fellow detectives gathered around and shared similar concerns.

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