For a teacher, `an absolute dream come true'

County program allows purchase of townhouse

North Laurel

December 21, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Facing the Baltimore area's highest housing prices, Howard County teachers like Jody Christophe are typically priced out of homeownership. But the 38-year-old single mother is celebrating some good fortune.

Christophe, who teaches German at River Hill High School, just bought for herself and her son, Keita, 8, a new garage townhouse in North Laurel that retails for more than $400,000. She settled on the new home Thursday and moved in Saturday.

"It's an absolute dream come true," Christophe said, recalling the whirlwind of activity that transformed her from a frustrated home seeker who in September was thinking about leaving the county into one of the rare beneficiaries of Howard's moderate-income housing program.

With home prices rising fast in the Baltimore area's wealthiest county, new homes in Howard are exclusively aimed at the luxury market. The median house price in Howard is about $396,000, and buyers would need an income of about $135,000 to afford that, said Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director.

Cherrytree Park is providing 10 percent of its 170 units as moderate-income housing, and anyone who lives or works in the county and earns less than $54,880 is eligible. The county held a public lottery two years ago to award the first Cherrytree homes. The last half-dozen units were reserved for county civil servants.

Howard's moderate-income housing law requires builders in certain zones to sell 5 percent to 15 percent of their homes (depending on type) at cost, after donating the lots, in exchange for being allowed to build more homes. But monthly fees and high-cost construction features in luxury homes are making that more difficult.

Howard officials are struggling to house middle-income people such as Christophe, who they say are vital to maintaining county services.

Christophe is one of six county government workers awarded homes in the last group of 17 Cherrytree Park homes included in the county's moderate-income housing program.

With an income just under the limit, she is paying $143,913, for her new home. That works out to a mortgage payment of $1,192 a month, plus a $55-a-month maintenance fee. That's $122 more than the rent on her two-bedroom apartment in Ellicott City, she said. The county Housing Commission takes a $55,000 second mortgage, payable when Christophe sells the house.

With their belongings piled around them after the move Saturday, a weary Christophe and her son reveled in their good fortune.

"It's a lot bigger," Keita said, looking around the spacious living room-dining room as the late afternoon sun illuminated the middle floor.

When they lived in their top-floor apartment, he said, he was unable to make neighborhood friends, partly because his mother could not see the street from their unit and would not let him out unsupervised. Now, watching other Cherrytree residents walking about the unfinished community in a fast-growing area near U.S. 29 and Route 216, he sees much brighter prospects.

Christophe marveled at the large eat-in kitchen, contrasting it with the tiny counter space in the apartment, the garage and the grassy open space outside her shiny new front door.

"On so many fronts, I'm just so lucky," she said.

It could be a while before anyone else gets a similar chance.

"Between rising costs and high standards of construction and because of homeowners association fees," Vaughan said, "it is becoming extremely difficult" to provide new moderate-income houses.

Home prices at Cherrytree, which range up to $425,000 plus options, started at $240,000 two years ago.

The next batch of moderate-income units is to be in the nearby Maple Lawn and Emerson mixed-use developments, where townhouse prices start at more than $500,000. Maple Lawn developer Stuart J. Greenebaum said his 100 moderate-income units - half for senior citizens - will be condominium apartments.

General Growth Properties Inc., developers of Emerson, are committed to providing 60 moderate-income units, but the company has no concrete plan or timetable for providing them.

Vaughan is looking for other alternatives, such as getting developers to donate land where no-frills middle-income houses can be built, raising the program's income limit to $90,000 to allow two-income families to qualify and buying renovated older homes and apartments.

Last month, the housing commission bought two small buildings on Church Road overlooking Ellicott City's Main Street for $310,000 and will rent to people with incomes of less than $41,160.

Christophe said she nearly missed her rare opportunity.

She learned that the houses were available when a colleague at River Hill saw a newspaper article about the opportunity two days before the application deadline in September.

On Nov. 18, Christophe got word that because someone had backed out, she could get a house now instead of waiting until more were finished next year.

"It means I can stay where I want to live," she said, explaining that without the program she was prepared to leave the county - and her teaching post behind.

Teachers such as Christophe help make Howard's school system a magnet that helps drive the county's real estate market. That, in turn, is shutting people at her income level out of that market.

"It makes no sense," she said.

"People just don't understand how desperate we are," she added, explaining that she had spent months looking for a place to buy without success. She said she was determined not to continue teaching in Howard County schools if she had to move to Baltimore County or Harford County and enroll her son in another school system.

"It's unbelievable to me how much things cost," she said.

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