Lottery Winner To Get A House In Columbia

Harkins Builders Honors Ceo, Helps County Worker

August 02, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Divorced and working two jobs to support herself and two college-age children, Karen Towson never thought of herself as the lucky one.

But the 52-year-old Columbia resident and part-time school custodian won the right to buy a renovated four-bedroom house in Columbia for $199,000 from Harkins Builders in a drawing conducted by county housing officials. She'll also receive $5,000 in cash, if she can get a mortgage within 60 days.

"To not have to pay rent anymore ... that's exciting," she said, smiling yet tearful after being chosen Tuesday from among six finalists at the county's Columbia offices. Two other county employees were chosen as alternates for the unusual offer.

The 4:30 p.m. time for the drawing was important, Towson said, because it enabled her to attend after working her day job as a computer-aided designer for a fire protection company and before she had to report to her night job as a custodian at county school board headquarters.

"What I make with my first job would not sustain us," she said, noting that her children, ages 18 and 20, are students at Howard Community College. Towson earns about $60,000 a year, she said, and pays $1,700 a month to rent a townhouse in Columbia.

"I want to be in this city; I work in this city," she said.

Officials at Harkins Builders, whose headquarters is in the county, were looking for a community service project to honor their former chief executive, J.P. Blase Cooke, said Larry Kraemer, a company vice president. It took eight months of searching and cooperation from the county to find the right house and make the deal work, he said.

Cooke, who died of cancer in 2007, rose from a laborer to head the firm, and he believed in community service, Kraemer said. Cooke wanted to help county workers live in Howard, where housing costs are high. The $5,000 in cash is from Cooke's widow, Dawn, and her family.

The white, four-bedroom house on Robin Song, a cul-de-sac off Oakland Mills Road, was bought by Harkins at a foreclosure sale in March for $199,000, and was completely renovated, with up to $70,000 worth of time and materials donated by employees and subcontractors.

"This is our own kind of Christmas in April project," Kraemer said. The buyer must be a county worker, have a limited income and must live in the home.

Workers replaced everything from the front sidewalk to the heat pump, renovated the bathrooms and installed new kitchen cabinets and appliances, new flooring, doors, trim, light fixtures, shutters, roofing and landscaping. The house looks new and has a large, fenced backyard. If Towson buys it, she can apply to state and county programs for help with settlement costs. If she decides to move, the county has the first right to buy it back.

The other finalists are eligible for the county's Moderate Income Housing Unit program, which plans to offer 10 new townhouses and condominiums in two drawings in August. In addition, county housing officials plan to seek County Council approval this year to expand programs that offer help with settlement and down payment costs or renovations. If the council approves, loans of up to $40,000 would be made available that would not have to be repaid until the house is sold.

According to George Reed, 64, a resident on Robin Song since 1976, the Harkins house has been vacant for two years, and before that had been rented to 10 to 15 transient immigrant workers at a time. He and his wife, Sandy, welcome its new use.

"It's a great idea," Sandy Reed said.

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