Homes less affordable

High prices forcing average-wage earners out of the local market


When Stuart McNicol put his three-bedroom Pasadena home on the market four years ago, it sold in 18 hours.

Since then, the value of the county fire chief's former home in Anne Arundel County has continued to rise, and it is expected to increase more than 45 percent above the original cost next summer.

McNicol joins thousands of Maryland homeowners and renters who have watched housing prices mushroom recently - prices that are making it harder and harder for those with average-wage jobs to afford a place to live.

Montgomery County's high housing costs have been well-publicized, but all of the seven Maryland areas documented by the U.S. Census Bureau saw at least a quarter of their households spending 30 percent or more of their incomes last year on housing costs.

"It's terrible," said Mitchell Klein with Maryland ACORN, a community organization of low- and moderate-income families. "A housing catastrophe is around the corner."

Baltimore City ranked as the worst, with more than 39 percent of its 244,634 households forking over at least 30 percent of their incomes to housing bills, including taxes and utilities. Prince George's County came in second, followed by Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Calvert and Howard counties.

Montgomery County has gained attention for the issue because it also has a high median household income - $82,971. Yet an analysis of the August census survey of jurisdictions with 250,000 people or more revealed that two other wealthy Maryland counties faced similar affordable-housing problems. More than a quarter of the 286,051 households in Howard and Anne Arundel counties spent about a third or more their annual incomes last year on housing expenses.

In Anne Arundel, which had a median household income of $66,986, more than 28 percent of its 188,790 households were at risk of not paying other bills because of homes that rented for a median of $881 a month and had a median price of about $280,260.

"That's well beyond a firefighter's salary," said McNicol, who lives on the Eastern Shore and has no plans to return to Anne Arundel. "Unless they [firefighters] have support, they're not going to live in this county very easily."

About half of the county's firefighters live outside the region, McNicol said, some commuting to work from Pennsylvania and Delaware.

In Howard County, which boasted Maryland's second-highest median household income at $82,065, more than a quarter of its 97,261 households devoted at least 30 percent of their incomes to homes with monthly median rent bills of $1,097 and median price tags of $347,584.

Such high rates hit public servants hard, making it especially difficult for new teachers, police officers and firefighters - some of Maryland's most vital workers.

About 2,600 of Howard County's 7,000 educators and support staff live outside the region, and 280 of the Police Department's 508 officers and civilians face the same situation.

Exacerbating the problem was a spike in poverty rates last year that pushed more than 5,000 families in Howard and Anne Arundel counties over the federal poverty line.

"Affordable housing is a problem," said Ann DeLacy, president of the Howard County Education Association. "Especially for new employees who face extraordinary challenges getting into the profession and who at the same time face living in less-than-optimal situations or having to travel long distances from outside the county."

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