Advocates take aim at housing prices

Market: The Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing tries to build support for more moderate-income homes in the county.

September 04, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Denise Darnell's eighth and last attempt to buy a house in Howard County ended like all the others - in failure.

She offered $25,000 over the $225,000 asking price for a Columbia townhouse, she said - and included a promise to pay that much over any other offer the seller got. But she was just one of numerous bidders and she lost out.

"At that point, I said, `This is ridiculous,' " said the 50-year old Colorado transplant, who put her home ownership plan on the back burner and enrolled in graduate school. "I consider myself a professional. I'd really like to be a homeowner here."

Darnell is typical of the examples noted by advocates for more moderate-income housing as they seek to build support for their case. County officials are considering changes to the government's programs and preparing for a series of planning meetings to determine central Columbia's future.

More than 60 people attended a recent presentation by the Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing in River Hill, and another meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center.

The group is gearing up for the weeklong, county-sponsored planning charrette scheduled to begin Oct. 15. The River Hill meeting was sponsored by all 10 Columbia village boards.

"We want to make this a high-priority issue. This is the 900-pound gorilla sitting in the midst of Howard County," said Andre J. DeVerneil, a coalition leader.

Said Bob Buckneier, another coalition member: "We have to work very hard to mount some kind of political will."

DeVerneil and Buckneier are participating in a county-sponsored committee of builders and officials working on revisions to Howard's moderate-income housing policies. They presented Darnell as an example to help refute fears reported by developers who say their full-price buyers do not want lower-priced homes near them.

"We don't want `them' living next to us. Who would not want Denise living next to us?" DeVerneil asked a generally supportive crowd at the River Hill community center. Young people, retirees, and working families with midrange incomes under $75,000 a year "can't live in Pennsylvania" and work or volunteer in Howard County, he said.

To illustrate the problem, DeVerneil presented real estate statistics gathered May 3, showing that only one detached house, six townhouses and nine condominium apartments with asking prices under $260,000 were on the market in Howard County. By contrast, there were 266 houses for sale for more than $400,000.

"The market is out of whack with the need. There's just a sense of unreality going on here," DeVerneil told the group.

He showed slides of large houses in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia that at first glance appear to be one home, but actually are duplexes containing two or four separate homes. In Montgomery County, townhouse developments, slightly narrower brick moderate-priced homes, were sprinkled amid full-price units.

"We're not proposing to build shacks in the middle of Clarksville," DeVerneil said.

The coalition's leaders warn that without strong action, Howard County will be transformed in coming years into an exclusive preserve for the wealthy. But their remedy of trading developers' less expensive homes for greater density arouses opposition from residents who fear lower-priced housing and congestion in county schools and on roads.

The group wants county leaders to embrace a plan requiring 15 percent of all new housing built in zones where it is not already required to be affordable for moderate-income people. The plan for achieving that is to grant developers a 20 percent increase in density - the number of houses allowed per acre.

The trade-off, DeVerneil said, would mean the program would not cost extra, either for the county, the taxpayers or the builders.

But Sherman Howell, president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, said he worries that as emphasis shifts to moderate-income housing, low-income people are being forgotten.

"We don't seem to be addressing the poorest of the poor," said Howell, who lives in the Hobbits Glen neighborhood. "They need a place to stay, too."

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