Housing program sees little interest

8 civil servants seek to buy discounted townhouses

Public lottery is considered

Howard County

September 12, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After a tepid response from local civil servants who were offered a chance to buy $400,000 North Laurel townhomes for less than half-price, Howard County housing officials might open the offer to the public.

Only two county employees qualified for a preferred chance to buy a new luxury townhouse for $138,000, housing officials said. If no more apply in the next few days, the remaining six moderate-income Cherrytree Park homes will be available for a public lottery, they said.

County housing director Leonard S. Vaughan said that only eight of more than 8,000 county employees applied to buy the homes, despite repeated e-mails and notices distributed by his agency. No teachers, police officers or firefighters were among the applicants.

If the remaining units become available to the public, interested buyers must apply by the end of next month for a lottery drawing likely to be held before Thanksgiving.

Local civil servants, who county officials often complain are being priced out of Howard's heated real estate market, were given first choice at all moderate-income housing under a County Council bill approved in July. But several union leaders suggested that confusion or lack of notice might have curbed the response.

Vaughan said the program's rules have changed since the first nine homes at Cherrytree Park were awarded two years ago, prohibiting single adults living alone from buying the 2,100-square-foot homes with garages.

The range of incomes for eligible buyers is also higher -- from $40,000 to $54,880 -- because buyers will face rising home prices and tax bills.

Finding new options

Vaughan is struggling to find new ways to expand the county's supply of moderate-income housing as property values and the resulting taxes soar in Howard County, he told the county Housing and Community Development Board at a meeting Thursday night.

Vaughan said that in several cases along the U.S. 1 corridor -- where county policy is to encourage urban-style redevelopment -- he is pushing developers to provide more units for buyers with moderate incomes.

Instead of accepting the 40 to 45 moderately priced townhouses required by law, Vaughan has negotiated for up to 84 such rental apartments in one complex, partly to provide places for mobile-home park residents in danger of displacement.

Apartments offer a continuous source of housing, he said, compared to sale homes occupied for years by the buyer.

Two projects, Village Towns and Oaks at Water's Edge in Jessup, are near the 241-unit Aladdin Village Mobile Home Park that is expected to close within five years.

Board member Nancy Rhead was leery of concentrating moderate-income apartments in one area of a development. But Vaughan argued that changing conditions require the county to be flexible and that the apartments are not low-income units.

Dispersing subsidized units in a development "was a basic premise, I thought," Rhead said.

Vaughan argued, though, that "when you ride down Snowden River Parkway, we have a project [of subsidized townhouses] there and you couldn't tell where it is. The bottom line for me is getting maximum benefit from the program."

`Need isn't going away'

Jennifer A. Beskid, another board member, agreed.

"If there was ever a need, the need is now, and that need isn't going away," she said.

Vaughan is also pushing for earlier delivery of 70 lower-priced units promised in Emerson, a Rouse Co. project along Interstate 95 at Route 216, and of 100 units promised in Maple Lawn Farms, a few miles west in Fulton.

"I want them all now," Vaughan said.

Pointing to the recently announced sale of The Rouse Co. to a Chicago-based shopping mall firm, Vaughan said the county can't afford to wait years for the moderate-income homes because the future is uncertain.

`Anything could happen'

"We need to come up with a strategy to push Rouse or the purchaser. If we wait until the end [of the project], anything could happen. When [Emerson] was planned, nobody envisioned townhouses selling for $500,000," Vaughan said.

Dennis W. Miller, Rouse's vice president in charge of Emerson, has said the company planned to wait up to three years before building moderate-income homes.

With home prices' rapid rise, even moderate-income buyers will pay more. The new Cherrytree units will cost $20,000 more than what the first nine buyers paid two years ago, and owners will need higher incomes to afford the higher taxes, Vaughan said.

Communication trouble

The lack of response from county workers baffled Vaughan, who told the board his agency sent out repeated notices via the county's e-mail system and posted signs in each department.

Twenty-one workers sought applications, but only the eight applied.

"I don't have any idea" why the response was so light, Vaughan said, though several union leaders said workers might have missed the notices or found them confusing.

"I never got an e-mail," said county police union President James F. Fitzgerald. County schools spokeswoman Patty Caplan said she never saw a notice, nor did teachers union President Joseph Staub.

Dale R. Chase, head of the 270-member American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees local 3085, said he saw the e-mail but pointed out that many members in his unit don't get e-mail and might have missed other notices.

One employee Chase told about the program was suspicious of it, calling it a "scam" because a buyer owns the home in partnership with the county instead of in partnership with a bank for the life of a mortgage.

Vaughan told the board that the first nine moderate-income buyers at Cherrytree will benefit from thousands of dollars of growing equity in the homes because the market prices have jumped from $240,000 to more than $405,000.

But Chase said many employees might not understand.

"It's just such a complicated process. It's just not understood," Chase said.

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