Officials look at low-cost housing need

Offer to moderate-income workers may be expanded

Howard County

September 20, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's housing officials are exploring new ways to provide affordable housing as a last-minute rush of 52 county employees sought a final chance to buy one of five remaining luxury townhouses at less than half-price.

The enthusiastic reaction came after publicity last week that the half-price deal had drawn few takers.

Leaders of several county employee unions said that the need is acute, but between tight income limits and rules requiring that new moderately priced homes go to families, only a narrow group of civil servants can qualify.

"The income range [$40,000 to $54,880] is very narrow," said Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association, the county's largest group of workers. Since the rules exclude single adults living alone, the pool of qualified civil servants is further narrowed.

"We've had folks say they're leaving [Howard County schools] because of the additional commuting time in their day" from more affordable places like Westminster, Hampstead or Reisterstown, he said.

Police union president James F. Fitzgerald said that with overtime, even relatively new police officers may earn close to the upper limit, and a spouse with a part-time job would disqualify them. With average new home prices in Howard well over $300,000, however, a home is still often beyond officers' reach.

Leonard S. Vaughan, county housing director, said that has prompted thoughts of legislation creating a program that would supply slightly higher-priced homes for slightly higher-income working families.

"These units can be built at a profit, but with a smaller profit margin," Vaughan said, warning that the idea is still in the early stages.

County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said the concept "is certainly worth looking at."

Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon said he also wants more housing for middle-income people, but he was leery of the government regulating home prices. "I'd rather pursue it through incentives for developers rather than requirements," he said.

Vaughan said the idea is enticing because it would expand the number of affordably priced homes instead of dividing the small supply.

For example, only five of the 17 moderately priced houses in the 170-unit Cherrytree Park townhouse development in southern Howard are still available. The rest were awarded to qualified buyers during the past two years. Delivery of 170 moderately priced units in the giant Emerson and Maple Lawn Farms projects near Cherrytree may be years away.

The council passed a law in July giving county employees first crack at moderately priced homes, which at Cherrytree would cost a buyer $138,000 for a 2,100-square-foot garage townhouse that retails for $405,000 or more. The U.S. Homes development is near U.S. 29 and Route 216.

Vaughan said that, although few county employees responded after initial notices about the five remaining homes -- and only two potential buyers qualified -- publicity about the tepid response attracted about 50 workers last week.

"A lot [of new applicants] are teachers, with some firefighters and police," Vaughan said, and if more than five qualify, a lottery drawing would be required.

Vaughan said he plans to boost notification efforts next time homes become available by calling union leaders and notifying county public information officers, not just human resources officials.

"We're going to work on that," Vaughan said.

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