Housing for a graying county

Age-restricted communities grow as population gets older

`It's past the novelty stage'

Change promises to produce economic, social challenges

June 26, 2005|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,SUN STAFF

Nell Crawford, by her own admission, created a "monster" with her passion for cultivating enormous and colorful exhibits of flowers, plants and shrubs patterned after the Great British gardens.

Her pursuit ultimately consumed half of the 3 acres that Crawford and her husband, Larry, lived on in Baltimore County. That was not a problem until age began creeping up on them.

"I frankly drove us to the point where we couldn't physically take care of it any longer," Crawford says.

The Crawfords sold the house and recently moved into the Evergreens, a luxurious, age-restricted apartment complex in Columbia.

They and the Evergreens exemplify broader trends: the graying of Howard County and the explosion of housing to serve them.

Age-restricted units - those reserved for people 55 or older - now represent the largest component of the county's housing industry.

In the past five years, about 2,000 senior housing units - predominantly townhouses and condominiums - have sprung up in the county, and at least half that many are in various stages of planning or construction.

"It's past the novelty stage, but it's still a fairly new phenomena," says Steve Lafferty, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning and chairman of a county task force on senior housing.

There are a number of reasons for this trend, but one overrides all others: The county is in the early stages of profound change, which will significantly alter its demographics and produce an avalanche of economic, social and political issues.

The over-55 age group is the fastest-growing segment. It is projected to increase by more than 46,000, to about 98,000 people, and will comprise almost one-third of the county's population by 2030 - twice what it is today.

No end in sight

That shift is not unique to Howard County. There are an estimated 78 million people in the country who are at or nearing retirement. The Census Bureau says the 65-and-older age group will grow faster than the total population in every state, and their numbers will double in more than half the states, including Maryland, in the next 15 years.

In anticipation of this transformation, builders across the country are constructing housing units for seniors. And there is no end in sight.

"Just the very edge is qualified to live in age-restricted dwellings now," says Jeffrey Jenkins, assistant director of the Senior Housing Council for the National Association of Home Builders in Washington. "It's going to be really huge in the next five to 10 years."

Virtually all of the units built and planned in Howard County are at the high end, most beginning at about $400,000 and quickly escalating. But the units are selling briskly, despite the prices.

"It's a very healthy housing market in the Washington-Baltimore market," Jenkins says. "It's very strong right now."

Though the building boom is serving an undisputed need, it is also creating an unexpected problem.

"The assumption is that the majority of the housing would be affordable to a majority of the people," says Leonard S. Vaughan, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development. "Anywhere from a minimum of 50 percent, up to 70 percent of the residents, can't afford to buy in the county."

One result is that many people who want to move to an age-restricted community when they near or reach retirement, will be unable to afford to do so, officials say.

But the ramifications do not end there. Concern is growing that some people will be forced to leave the county as they age.

"We hear stories about people who've been here a long time who are moving to Carroll County and Frederick County - some on the Eastern Shore - because they can find a home ... that they can afford," says Phyllis Madachy, administrator of the Office on Aging.

Counting the losses

"We will be a place where only dual-income, young families can afford to be," she says. "I don't think that's how Howard County envisions itself."

That loss would affect the county well beyond mere population numbers, says Terri Hansen, housing coordinator at the Office on Aging.

"We lose, other than what seniors provide to the neighborhood, what they provide to the community at large," she says. "They are a huge volunteer component."

The skyrocketing prices worry officials, but one factor behind them comes as a shock: Most buyers of senior housing are demanding generous space.

"People are going down, but they're not going down to 1,800 or 2,000 square feet, which is what we thought might be the market," Lafferty says. "They're downsizing to an extent, but mainly it's in the upkeep of the outside of the house, not as much the inside."

There are exceptions. Condominiums at The Enclave at Ellicott Hills in Ellicott City range from about 1,300 square feet to 1,569 square feet.

But most of the units built today are up to 2,500 square feet, and some are much larger.

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