Study reports housing costs out of reach for many residents

Zoning urged to increase stock of affordable homes

Carroll County

February 23, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Carroll County will continue to grow at a phenomenal rate and the cost of residential construction is rising so fast - more than 26 percent last year - that many families can no longer afford to live here, according to a housing study released yesterday.

The study, which shows the county has grown by nearly 30,000 houses in the past 25 years, points to a pressing need for affordable housing. It includes several recommendations for encouraging construction of smaller, less-costly houses, including zoning for higher density and enacting a work force housing ordinance.

Such legislation would spread affordable housing throughout the county by compelling developers to include a small percentage of moderate houses in larger subdivisions, the study said.

"Zoning is the best tool government has to create affordable housing," said Thomas W. Doerr, a co-founder and senior associate of the Innovative Housing Institute, a nonprofit group that prepared the study over the past year. "We don't want to create concentrations of poverty. The impact should be minimal."

The Innovative Housing Institute, based in Baltimore, helps communities provide housing alternatives, such as cluster homes in agricultural zones and housing in commercial areas. Doerr urged the commissioners to consider the recommendations as they begin to rework the county's master plan.

About 20 percent of Carroll's population earns about $15 an hour or less, the study says. With the average cost of a house in Carroll at $303,000, the housing inventory has nearly priced out first-time homebuyers and those of middle income, and has left low-income families with no possibility of buying a house, the study says. The study found that median-income families - households earning $65,000 annually - have a choice of less than 10 percent of houses on the market.

"There is nothing on the market for those families," Doerr said. "The greatest number of houses on the market are priced at more than $400,000."

And apartments are nearly impossible to find, he said. A two-bedroom unit averages $932 a month, creating a huge gap between rent and what a minimum-wage earner can pay, Doerr said.

"Too many of us find these numbers frightening," Doerr said. "The economic trends are good, but they cannot keep up with housing costs."

Families with children represent the largest block of prospective buyers. The median income is about $67,500, nearly $15,000 more than the state average.

And although 66 percent of Carroll's households earn more than $50,000 annually, salaries are not keeping pace with the cost of housing, the study says. Lenders are providing hefty mortgages so those households can afford the homes.

"This explains why we have $500,000 homes with little or no low-income housing," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich. Carroll has about 55,000 houses, many of them on large lots with private water and sewer.

The $42,000 study, funded by a state community development block grant and county funds, reviewed population growth and characteristics, housing history, conditions, prices and trends, rental options and affordable housing. It looked at economic growth, jobs and migration in and out of the county.

Carroll's population will grow by almost 10 percent in the next five years to nearly 182,000, at a rate that is twice the national average, Doerr said. More than 28 percent of people moving to Carroll are relocating from Baltimore County. The next-largest migration, at 10 percent, is from Howard County.

"Our biggest suggestion is to keep working on the housing issue," Doerr said. "There is no one solution, but the situation here is getting out of hand for more than a third of the population."

Minnich called the study "a tremendous challenge for this board and for the boards to come."

"The consequences of doing something are great - and just as great if we do nothing. No matter what we do, someone will have a lifestyle change," he said.

Officials asked Doerr to develop a presentation for community groups and town leaders.

"The community needs to understand what this report says and what it means," said Steven D. Powell, the commissioners' chief of staff.

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