Making low-cost housing a reality

Columbia Housing and Habitat for Humanity to build in Jessup, Elkridge

October 05, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

The struggle to provide affordable housing for limited-income working families focused yesterday on a foggy hillside in tiny Lennox Park off Dorsey Road, as low-flying airplanes approached nearby Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and occasional passenger trains whizzed by on tracks just steps away.

Howard County's Habitat for Humanity chapter held a groundbreaking for a new detached home it hopes to build next spring on the L-shaped Elkridge parcel in what was once an isolated hamlet populated mainly by railroad workers.

Meanwhile, on adjoining lots, construction by the Columbia Housing Corp. on the first of three additional subsidized single-family houses is to begin by Thanksgiving.

"A house is one more asset for one more family. It has a tremendous impact. It demonstrates very visibly that it can happen," said Stacy L. Spann, Howard County's housing commissioner, who attended the groundbreaking. Spann has been under pressure from housing advocates to take more comprehensive action to provide limited-income working families with homes they can afford in Howard, where the average price of a new home exceeds $450,000.

Spann said the county used $68,000 in federal Community Development Housing Association money to help Habitat buy the lot for its house. The county provided $120,000 for the Columbia Housing Corp. portion of the project, according to Carol MacPhee, executive director and president of the Perpetual Loan Fund, a revolving fund created to help pay for subsidized housing. Columbia Housing Corp. is landlord to more than 300 lower-income families in Columbia and Ellicott City.

Habitat officials say they hope to get building permits by year's end for two homes the chapter plans to build in Jessup, on Donald Avenue just off U.S. 1, where a similar groundbreaking was held in June. Although Habitat members had hoped to complete those two homes by last month, the project has been delayed, according to Habitat Executive Director David Roura, because for two homes the group had to prepare a formal site development plan, and county processing takes longer.

The Elkridge project also demonstrates how long it can take to make progress, even on a few new homes.

It was 2002 when developer Wayne Newsome donated one lot and sold two others to Columbia Housing, and sold the fourth to Habitat, MacPhee said.

Part of the delay involved getting approval from the Baltimore Aviation and Zoning Authority due to the noise from airplanes approaching the airport. MacPhee said the new homes will be equipped with extra insulation and special windows to help block out the noise of planes and trains.

Five years were needed to get all the development approvals, install water and sewer pipes and obtain the first building permit.

MacPhee said the Elkridge homes should look similar. Columbia Housing's will have three bedrooms, she said. Roura said Habitat's house will have four bedrooms, since the religiously based group often tries to help larger families.

Habitat's program is accelerating, Roura said, since completion of the group's first house in April 2005. A coalition of 12 churches and five nonprofits plans to share the construction costs of about $90,000 and contribute equal shares of labor for the Elkridge project. The work should take about 12 weeks to complete.

Families have not been chosen to live in the homes yet, though MacPhee said nearly 50 Columbia Housing Corp. tenants attended a meeting this week to learn about the opportunity. Roura said Habitat is also preparing to choose people for a semipermanent list of prequalified buyers.

Habitat issues buyers a 30-year interest-free loan, but requires each family to help build and finish the structure and to pay a monthly fee based on income. Habitat applicants can't earn more than half the median family income for the county - putting the limit at about $47,000 a year. MacPhee said her homes are available to those earning up to about $72,000 a year for a family of four.

Eileen Gregor, 70, who has lived all her life just across the railroad tracks in Anne Arundel County, said most residents of the former hamlet were railroad workers who boarded trains and got their mail at stations that once operated nearby on Old Dorsey Road. Later, the former Dorsey Speedway attracted crowds for weekend stock-car races.

"It used to be a quiet little town," Gregor said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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