It's a minus, not a plus

September 27, 2006

The Ehrlich administration's revamped version of a state home-buying assistance program called Live Near Your Work is a disappointment on many levels, not least because it no longer aims to reduce congestion and sprawl.

Live Near Your Work Plus, as the new program is called, is a shadow of the original program and shares its once-worthy goals in name only.

The earlier version encouraged people to actually live near their workplace, and it did so by enlisting employers and local governments to take part. It also aimed to revitalize neighborhoods by giving assistance mostly to buyers of homes in or near areas targeted for population growth. Baltimore benefited as a result, and the city Housing Department has wisely continued those efforts by funding its own modest targeted housing program.

The new program is open to those who buy homes costing a maximum of $429,000 in non-targeted areas and $525,000 in targeted areas, and requires only that buyers live within a 25-mile radius of their workplaces. For that small sacrifice, they agree to pay a slightly higher interest rate in exchange for a cash grant, equal to 3 percent of their mortgage, to put toward their closing costs.

While the program will likely help middle-income families, it will also benefit six-figure earners, a giveaway that has the markings of election-year generosity.

Officials at the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development note that in a state where the taxes and fees for home purchases are among the highest nationally, it makes sense to help all homebuyers. Indeed, it would make far more sense to take a hard look at the fees that drive closing costs up so high in the first place.

Still, helping relatively high-income families with those costs would not seem so questionable if the program retained the larger and more beneficial goal of curbing urban sprawl - by encouraging homebuyers to, well, live near their work.

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