Old homes bring new hope

Drawing: Two middle-income families will be chosen to buy the renovated Ellicott City units.

April 13, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Against a backdrop of soaring Howard County home prices, housing officials are to select two middle-income families today to buy extensively renovated homes in a 100-year-old building in Ellicott City's historic district.

"I had been looking for over a year," said nine-year Long Reach resident Serena Goodwin, 34, a bank office worker and mother of two who is eligible for the drawing to purchase the homes for $132,000 each. She could find nothing in Howard County below $150,000, she said.

Selling renovated homes at heavily discounted prices is the newest aspect of the county's moderate-income housing program, which will offer eight new garage townhouses to buyers chosen by lottery this spring.

The first two sales of renovated units come just four months after the County Council passed a bill creating the program, which allows home builders to trade part of their mandate to build new moderately priced units with rehabbed older ones.

"We're very excited. These houses are right in the historic district near $400,000, $500,000 and $600,000 houses," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican who represents the area and co-sponsored the bill with east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes.

"This is a blessing for someone," Rakes said about the approximately dozen middle-income buyers eligible to be chosen for the Ellicott City homes. He wants to find more homes, including some in his district, for the program, he said.

Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director, said another drawing will occur this spring to choose buyers for eight more luxury townhouses with garages in the Cherrytree Park development in southern Howard. Nine of the development's 2,160-square-foot homes - with retail prices of more than $350,000 - were sold last year to people with incomes between $35,600 and $53,120.

Under the county's program, which requires at least 10 percent of homes in large mixed-use developments to be offered at "moderate" prices, the houses will sell for $140,000 each. The first nine buyers paid $118,700, with the county picking up the difference in a second mortgage to cover the builder's cost. Vaughan said the new group of Cherrytree homes will go for the full $140,000 to the buyers.

Trying to provide affordable housing in Howard, where the average home price is now more than $300,000, is like swimming against the tide, officials said.

"It's going to be really tough to do anything in this market," Vaughan said, referring to the escalating land and home prices.

"The people who win the lottery will be ecstatic, but there will be a lot more people who won't win," said Joseph Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association.

"Even the price of condominiums and townhouses have become prohibitive for single teachers," Staub said. Affordable rentals are harder to find, with rents rising to $2,000 a month and higher.

Howard officials know that, but they say they are doing the best they can.

"We're doing everything I think we can reasonably do right now given the availability of land and the cost of land," said County Executive James N. Robey.

Rising prices

Jared Spahn, the builder renovating the Ellicott City homes, said when he built his first house in 1997, a single-family lot sold for $95,000 to builders. "Today, a quarter-acre lot in Waverly Woods is $220,000," he said.

Although the renovated homes on Frederick Road are flanked by other older, sometimes run-down rowhouses, Spahn said, the three-story units offer three bedrooms, including a 15-by-16-foot master bedroom with an equally large bathroom and closet area on the top floor, and large eat-in kitchens equipped with new appliances.

In addition to rebuilding virtually every major part of the building, from the floors to central air conditioning, Spahn built a porch roof on the front, although he left the porch decking, a pipe railing and concrete sidewalk blocks.

Donna Walker, 44, another bank worker eligible for the drawing who is looking to buy her first home, said she has not seen the renovated units. But it doesn't matter.

"In the last two or three years, the cost of even entry-level housing has become prohibitive for those of us who make an average salary," she said. Meanwhile, the rent for her Columbia apartment keeps climbing.

Under the county program, a contractor must spend at least $50,000 on rehabilitation, but then may sell a county-issued certificate qualifying the home as moderate-income housing to a new-home builder.

Nancy M. Rhead, a member of the county housing board, worried that the program might undermine the limited number of new homes offered at moderate prices - something that still concerns her, she said.

`Competing needs'

The renovation program allows a new-home builder to satisfy up to 20 percent of the moderate-income-unit law with renovated older homes.

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