The more affordable suburbs

Sun Staff

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.

"The same patterns of disinvestment that hit Baltimore City 20 years ago, these neighborhoods are experiencing today," said Michael A. Sarbanes, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens Planning and Housing Association in Baltimore.

But many "have a lot more to offer than what is assumed of them," he added. "There is a very good financial reason for people to take a close look."

And more people are doing just that. The average home sold in the under-$200,000 communities last year was on the market for 31 days - a turnaround that was 10 days faster than in the rest of the Baltimore suburbs. These inexpensive neighborhoods had more sales than the region's average suburban ZIP code, too.

So if the homes there are selling so quickly, why aren't the prices escalating more? Because the people who move to these lower-priced communities tend to make significantly less money than the typical Marylander, which means less ability to get into bidding wars. The average household in the state earns close to $80,000, compared with an average of less than $60,000 for most of the inexpensive suburbs, according to Claritas, a provider of consumer demographic information.

'Kind of a secret'

But the way Megan Weiss sees it, these neighborhoods offer young couples the chance for a higher standard of living than a more expensive place.

She and husband Jerry spent $120,000 for a four-bedroom rowhouse in Dundalk that's almost 50 years old but has a lot of new touches. That left them with enough money to buy nice furniture, drive nice cars and live on 1 1/2 salaries. Megan Weiss, 26, works part time and raises their toddler.

She was well aware of all the Dundalk-as-backwater stereotypes before she moved there in September: She grew up in the community before leaving for college. But she was delighted to come back, and many of her childhood friends have done the same.

"I think it's kind of a secret, to tell you the truth," she said. "I like the easy access to the Beltway. I like that I don't have to go out of town to do my shopping ... and I really like the location."

The Dundalk ZIP code has about the same per-capita level of what police call serious property and violent crime as Baltimore County - and the level is dropping more quickly than it is countywide. But the older parts of town are struggling with the majority of local crime, according to police figures.

The western half of Dundalk, closer to the city, had 102 serious crimes per 1,000 residents in 2003, the most recent statistics. That's a lot higher than Baltimore County as a whole, at 65 serious crimes for every 1,000 residents.

Weiss hasn't had any problems. There are good areas of Dundalk and bad areas, she says, just like any community.

"It's very safe here in our neighborhood," she said.

Dundalk is one of the least expensive Baltimore suburbs, and because sales prices rose less than 37 percent between 1999 and last year, it's an underperformer in the region's unprecedented boom.

But some investors think it's a candidate for the next hot place. Part of Dundalk is laid out like an English village and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was designed by the planners responsible for Roland Park. And because the community is cradled by the Patapsco River, Back River and Bear Creek, there are more than 40 miles of waterfront.

Charlie Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore Inc., a nonprofit housing and community development organization that worked in Canton before it was cool, calls Dundalk "the last cheap beautiful place on the Northeast corridor." He is trying to ensure that the oldest part of the community gets the attention it needs so it doesn't tip from solid working class into decay, as Canton did in the 1990s.

"The average house in the Dundalk historic district is about 800 square feet, and the average kitchen is about the size of your closet," said Duff, whose group recently signed on to rehabilitate homes with the Dundalk Renaissance Corp. "It's a neighborhood full of houses that are 80 years old - and they've been well-maintained, but houses need more than ... maintenance every 80 years."

In fact, the size and type of housing is the primary challenge for older suburbs, particularly the ones built between World War II and the early 1960s, said William Lucy, a University of Virginia professor who co-wrote a book called Confronting Suburban Decline.

They're about half as large as the homes built nowadays, "and therefore the people who are buying them or renting them are likely to be considerably lower income than their earlier occupants," he said.

He calls the decline of older suburbs a nationwide problem - from Los Angeles to Atlanta - but says few are paying attention.

Additions and renovations would help turn the tide, Lucy said. Without substantial help from nonprofits or government agencies, though, he's not hopeful that struggling suburbs can make it. It's easier to revitalize a city, where the downtown and the major employers act as anchors, he said.

But Baltimore's least expensive suburbs have more hope of revival than some metro areas because there's not as wide an income gap between the region's haves and have-nots, Lucy said.

"They have not sunk as low as suburbs in other metropolitan areas yet," he said.

Harford County

Harford County has some of the same older-suburb problems and potential as Baltimore County. Its under-$200,000 communities - Edgewood, Aberdeen and Belcamp - are clustered around I-95 and U.S. 40, near the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

U.S. 40, peppered with sagging commercial buildings and vacant lots, isn't a selling point. Harford County officials are trying to revitalize the area because residents and leaders say it has a wrong-side-of-the-tracks reputation thanks to problems with violence, drugs and gangs, and low school test scores.

The percentage of students meeting Maryland High School Assessments standards in English and algebra at Aberdeen High and Edgewood High was significantly below the county and state averages last year. It's a similar story at many of the other inexpensive suburbs' schools - like Dundalk High, Middle River's Kenwood High and North County High near Brooklyn Park.

But access to highways and riverside land can do wonders. There are signs that prices may not stay low for long.

In industrial Belcamp, where the average home cost less than $165,000 last year, Clark Turner Cos. and Manekin LLC are developing a luxury residential and office complex on the Bush River called Water's Edge. Condos there were priced for as much as $460,000 and townhouses for $550,000 - and they're sold out.

Harford communities that used to be "not as sought after" are seeing more interest because prices are rising so quickly in the region, said Diana Hirschhorn, a Long & Foster real estate agent in Bel Air.

"I can't think of a pocket of Harford County that has not seen a huge demand and huge appreciation," she said.


Prices rose more slowly in Baltimore County's Middle River than across the suburbs overall, but Robert L. Thomsen Jr. doesn't feel he has anything to complain about. He spent $70,000 on his rowhouse when he moved to the community in 1996; now some are selling for more than $100,000 on his street.

Lenders "give you a line of credit - they say, 'You can spend this much' - but I didn't want to be house poor," said Thomsen, 32, a mechanic for International Steel Group in Sparrows Point. "This was ideal for me. The price was right."

The timing wasn't bad, either. Baltimore County estimates that it has pumped $800 million into infrastructure and other improvements on the east side in the past decade to reverse years of governmental neglect.

Since Thomsen moved in, an old shopping center around the corner was torn down and replaced with a new one. A dilapidated, crime-ridden apartment complex was razed, replaced with neotraditional single-family houses in a development called WaterView - one of the centerpieces of local revitalization.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who has made community "renaissance" a central goal of his administration, said a steady stream of new retail businesses into Middle River and other places on the east and west sides proves that these less expensive neighborhoods are solid.

The lower housing cost, in his view, is a plus. Most of the region - pricey Howard County in particular - is struggling to provide homes that community workers such as teachers and police officers can afford.

"I think it demonstrates that Baltimore County is a very attractive option to those jurisdictions that are pricing themselves out of the market," Smith said. "People can still afford to live in Baltimore County."

Thomsen has considered moving out of the county, though. He knows at the very least that he'll have to move out of his house in a few years.

He sees nothing wrong with his neighborhood; it's simply that his family of five is quickly outgrowing what was originally a two-bedroom home.

Luring developers

Thomsen is one example of why the least expensive communities in the region are typically losing married couples with children: It's sometimes about the size of the homes rather than the test scores of local schools.

With that in mind, Baltimore's suburbs have tried to lure developers away from farm fields and back to older communities. The problem, builders say, is that an inexpensive community isn't necessarily a bargain.

"They're more than tired: When the prices are that low, these areas are in economic distress - economic and social distress," said John Kortecamp, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

But builders do think there are opportunities to be had, he said. They're looking for spots with good infrastructure to make up for problems, such as poor-performing schools.

"In many cases, the elements are ripe for some fresh thinking," Kortecamp said.

National builder Ryland Homes is so sure there's a market in Middle River now that it has committed to building 850 units off Middle River Road, a community of single-family homes, townhouses and seniors-only apartments.

The Miramar Landing neighborhood will replace what was meant to be temporary housing for World War II workers, and the designs are classic suburban living: homes 1,500 to 3,000 square feet that start at about $200,000.

Ed Gold, president of Ryland's Baltimore division, knows all about the people who think the area's not a good place to live. He acknowledges that he used to think it wasn't worth building there.

"Listen," he says, "I was wrong."

He looked into tackling the nearby 175-house WaterView project several years ago but didn't believe the county's grand visions of revitalization. When the county didn't select Ryland as a finalist, he was pleased.

Then he saw the results.

"I should have been in there at the beginning, and I wasn't," Gold said. "Now I'm not going to miss it the second time around."

Jean-Marie Albrecht, a 49-year-old legal assistant, was part of the first wave.

She never saw herself living in the Middle River area, not with its crime problems. But as crime worsened in her Northeast Baltimore neighborhood, she noticed improvements on the county's east side. She saw the WaterView development taking shape. And Albrecht realized she could afford to have a home built for the first time in her life.

"You know," she told her husband, Joe, "this might not be too bad."

'The right move'

It turned out better than she imagined. Their city home sold in two weeks for $25,000 more than they thought they could get. Their new house cost $185,000 in 2003 - and less than two years later, WaterView residences are selling for $255,000 to $325,000.

"I made the right move," Albrecht says now. "People are buying there like crazy."

In Parkville - where the average home sold for $175,000 last year - builders are squeezing new houses into the few remaining vacant lots, and homeowners are putting additions on bungalows. Community activist Ruth Baisden has lived there for two decades and can see that the area has hit a turning point, helped by reinvestment in old government buildings and the Harford Road commercial strip.

Parkville is just outside the Northeast corner of Baltimore, the part of the city that Albrecht left in frustration. Residents watching the exodus from the city in the 1990s wondered whether their close-in location would hurt property values. A few years ago, community leaders were brainstorming ways to sell outsiders on the place.

Now, Baisden says, they don't even have to try. Prices in Parkville have risen as fast as in the rest of Baltimore County. The average home sold last year was snapped up in a spare 24 days - faster than the average in popular and pricey Howard County.

"We really have a decent trend going on," she said, "and we're very excited about it."

The housing boom

To document the boom and its consequences, The Sun analyzed average sales prices for all types of Baltimore-area residences - one-level condos, townhouses, duplexes and detached houses - from 1999 through last year. These numbers were collected by Rockville-based Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. from real estate agents, so they do not include for-sale-by-owners or most new homes.

The MRIS system, owned in part by Realtor associations, is an online multiple listing service used by real estate agents, brokers and appraisers. Those members update real estate listings and are required to follow rules and regulations to maintain the integrity of sale information.

The average sales price in the Baltimore suburbs rose 68 percent between 1999 and 2004. The numbers are not adjusted for inflation. Local inflation was about 15 percent during the period.

The bargain suburbs

There are still affordable suburban houses - relatively speaking - to be had. In 19 communities in the Baltimore suburbs, the average home sold for less than $200,000 last year. Prices do not include sales in any section of these ZIP codes that crosses into the city.

Community (ZIP code) Average sales price, 2004

Milford area (21215) $79,600

Eastpoint (21224) $93,100

Dundalk (21222) $108,000

Overlea (21206) $137,900

Edgewood (21040) $139,200

Brooklyn Park (21225) $139,400

Woodlawn (21207) $142,700

West Edmondale area (21229) $146,000

Essex (21221) $146,200

Halethorpe(21227) $162,300

Belcamp (21017) $162,900

Middle River (21220) $167,900

Windsor Mill (21244) $169,900

Parkville (21234) $175,100

Aberdeen (21001) $177,100

Rosedale (21237) $180,700

Union Bridge (21791) $191,400

Randallstown (21133) $194,700

Fullerton (21236) $198,500

Source: Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. data, analyzed by The Sun

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