Howard building affordable, 'green' cottage homes

Demonstration project to include Baltimore family

May 31, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

In a wooded neighborhood near the old U.S. 1 commercial corridor in Howard County, an excavator and a bulldozer are working in a big muddy patch to prepare ground for 10 new houses designed for a future of smaller, more efficient homes for moderate-income families.

The 1,313-square-foot Cottages at Greenwood are to be wheelchair-accessible and affordable, and are expected to use 62 percent less energy and cut typical home utility bills in half. County officials intend to keep one home for a few years to demonstrate the combination of features to builders and to the public.

"It's really part of our strategy to rethink workforce housing," said County Executive Ken Ulman. "Workforce housing can be done in a new way, [and] it's my job to set the vision" and show what's possible. Those who will buy the homes "are the least able to afford big BGE costs," he added.

The 3.4-acre site, purchased in 2002 with federal grant money, is one of several parcels in Jessup, just off Guilford Road, where new houses have been popping up on scattered lots between much older ones built decades ago when the area was considered rural. If the new homes sell well, the county Housing Commission plans to build two dozen more on a nearby plot bought years ago.

"The goal of the project is to sell the homes to buyers who want to live in an affordable, well-designed, energy-efficient home in Howard County," said Kelly Cimino, the county's moderate-income housing coordinator. "The community is close to major commuter routes and really convenient for buyers who may already work in the county."

"We believe it's the first development of its kind," that includes all three qualities, said Thomas Carbo, deputy county housing director. The first four houses, each on one level with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, are expected to be ready by year's end. "There's tons of storage space" in a partly finished attic, he said. An outdoor shed comes with a covered carport.

The detached, single-family homes will be built with recycled materials; energy-efficient roof shingles, siding, windows, and appliances; added insulation; and tankless water heaters. Permeable paving will help to absorb water, one of several outdoor features designed to prevent runoff. There will be wide doors and hallways and no steps or ramps (except the pull-down stairs to the attic).

A decade ago, the hope was to sell such homes for $150,000. Now, despite post-housing bubble price declines, they'll go for $252,400 each to middle-income families making up to $64,400 for a family of four. The Housing Commission will offer up to $40,000 in down payment and closing costs as a loan that need not be repaid until the house is resold, Carbo said.

One unit is to be purchased for the Baltimore Housing Authority by the Annapolis-based nonprofit Homes for America, and will be rented to a low-income city family.

According to Peter Engel, assistant city housing commissioner, the purchase is the last of 57 units in the city and surrounding counties that the housing authority agreed to supply under a consent decree stemming from a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 1995.

The lawsuit accused the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, city officials and the city housing authority of keeping low-income black families concentrated in public housing in Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods, perpetuating racial discrimination. Part of the remedy under the consent decree involves providing some of those families the chance to obtain housing in better neighborhoods in the city and in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties.

"This is one we're very happy to get because of the green features and the accessibility," Engel said.

Tim Sosinski, a subsidized housing advocate who is a member of Howard County's Full Spectrum Housing Coalition and an architect, said he is impressed with the accessibility and abundance of green design features at a moderate cost.

"The big one here is that they're one story and sustainable," he said. "That's very exciting," because it shows "it is possible to build these kinds of units" at a moderate price.

But some county housing advocates would like to see more government emphasis on families with lower incomes.

"The concern is not people with moderate incomes," said Sherman Howell, a longtime county housing advocate. "To get 10 units is good, but it's not a strategic priority."

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