Affordable housing in Dundalk

In Dundalk and in 18 other suburbs in the Baltimore metropolitan area, many houses sell for less than $200,000. (Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum / January 24, 2005)

Part 2 of 3

It was born as a blue-collar answer to Baltimore's wealthy Roland Park, a place where steelworkers could afford a tidy home with a back yard for gardening.

Nearly 90 years later, Dundalk - the Baltimore County community forged and forsaken by Bethlehem Steel - is still affordable. The average home sold for under $110,000 last year, about a third of the region's suburban average.

As prices rise sharply in the Baltimore area, it stands as proof that the common man and the one-income family can buy a house in the suburbs today, if only they look in the right places.

The catch is that Dundalk and many of the region's most affordable suburban communities are at the crossroads of vitality and decline.

Prices there are not appreciating as rapidly as in other suburbs, exposing a rift in the region. Like the manufacturing jobs whose workers they were often built to serve, the older homes in these neighborhoods are an echo of the past - one that doesn't resonate with many buyers now.

A Sun analysis of home sales tracked by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. identified 19 suburban ZIP codes in the region where the average home was purchased for less than $200,000 last year.

Many are in eastern Baltimore County, from Rosedale to Middle River. Almost all are near major highways - such as Aberdeen, between Interstate 95 and U.S. 40 in Harford County, or Brooklyn Park, between I-695 and I-895 in Anne Arundel.

This is "work force housing," the lack of which has government officials wringing their hands, as teachers, nurses and other vital service providers find they can't afford to live near their employers.

But even as the cost elsewhere soars, a fair number of workers can't imagine themselves living in these reasonably priced places. They'd sooner move an hour from their jobs than settle in small, old rowhouses or single-family houses that sit near ugly commercial strips, schools with low to middling test scores and pockets of crime.

This is the main reason that most of these areas haven't taken off - and why, even though they have their ardent believers, the idea of blossoming revival leaves plenty skeptical.

"People are not going to move to old communities that have the perception of decay," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "If you took the same houses and put them in northern Baltimore County, in Howard County, you could add another [$100,000] to $200,000 on them."

Slower appreciation

All the under-$200,000 communities have benefited from the real estate boom. But only two - Aberdeen and Brooklyn Park - have appreciated at least as quickly as the Baltimore suburbs overall between 1999 and last year.

Most of these communities were defined by the great push out of U.S. cities after World War II, a migration fueled by families searching for more space, newer homes and better schools. They were once the epitome of the American dream.

Now, though, most of these less expensive neighborhoods look more like Baltimore than Columbia. Rick Lake, a real estate agent who lives in Dundalk, says many buyers won't so much as drive through that community, never seeing the selling points - including a charming Main Street and riverside parks.

"So many people just write off Dundalk," he says with frustration.

These communities are stuck in a tricky spot: They don't have the amenities of a city, the downtown night life that draws singles and young couples, but they also don't have the high-performing schools and subdivisions full of new homes that attract families to places like Howard County.

At the same time, Baltimore City is showing signs of a comeback after a generation of population loss and deterioration, attracting investment and interest that the region's older suburbs could use. In eastern Baltimore County especially, residents look at the city's Canton neighborhood - where prices have soared - and hope the ripple effects are coming their way.