The Hilltop public housing complex along Mt. Ida Drive is being torn down and rebuilt to include a mix of low-income renters and market-rate renters. This is one of several projects that the new Howard County housing director Tom Carbo is overseeing. (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis / March 7, 2012)

Howard County housing director Tom Carbo can tick off plenty of reasons to live in Howard County — good schools, safe neighborhoods, relatively easy commutes to Baltimore and Washington. But when the time came for him to purchase a home for his family, even he felt priced out.

He and his wife had been looking at a Ryland Home in Howard County in 1996 when they sold their first house in the Baltimore City neighborhood of Edmondson Village. But they found the same model in Carroll County for significantly less, and the family wound up moving to Westminster.

Sixteen years later, Carbo says, Howard continues to struggle with affordability as officials seek to provide opportunities for people to work and live in the county. It's a particular problem for middle-class families, many of whom are not eligible for some government help offsetting the high cost of housing in a county where the median household income is more than $100,000.

"We wanted a bigger home — the American dream," Carbo said of the move to his second home. That aspiration is one the department hopes to help more residents to attain in Howard.

Carbo has worked for the county as a solicitor, hearing examiner and deputy housing director. He took the county's top housing job in February, following Stacy Spann's departure for a job in Montgomery County, and now faces the challenge of helping people of all income levels afford homes at a time when federal, state and local funding is drying up.

Attracting residents of all income levels to Howard, he said, means a more sustainable community, with less traffic congestion because fewer workers will be forced to commute from outside the county, as well as making Howard more attractive for businesses to set up shop where their employees can afford to live.

The county provides some buying and renting opportunities through its Moderate Income Housing Unit program, a zoning policy that requires developers to offer 10 percent to 15 percent of their new development at a lesser rate.

But Carbo acknowledges that the program doesn't help residents who make under the $60,000 threshold, or rental opportunities for those who make $40,000 or less.

"We recognize that is a very large problem. That is a segment that we have had difficulty finding ways to reach because of the deeper subsidy that they require," Carbo said.

"We are looking at ways to reach a little bit lower incomes," such as changing the MIHU program to provide fewer units but for lower income range, he said.

But some critics say some relief for lower income is needed now.

"We're setting ourselves up for people to be at a chronic risk for homelessness," said Jane O'Leary, executive director for the nonprofit Bridges for Housing Stability. She spoke recently to a group from the county's school health council, which met to discuss the increase in the number of homeless students.

O'Leary said recent increases of family homelessness are a direct result of those who are "precariously housed," or those barely making enough to get by. That number has been increased because of high rents and foreclosures. She said its not uncommon for residents to spend 50 percent to 60 percent of their income on housing.

"When something disrupts that fragile balance," such as a major car repair, that family can fall behind on payments, potentially left without a home.

She said she'd like to see more opportunities for those who are stuck in the county's shelters, Grassroots and Bridges, who have jobs but are unable to make enough to afford to be self-sufficient.

Sherman Howell, vice president of the African-American Coalition of Howard County, who has been vocal on housing issues, said he too is concerned that the county does not provide enough rental and buying opportunities.

"They have to have a program for those who fall below $60,000. Otherwise, you're not effectively using county services," he said, adding that the coalition often receives calls from residents trying to find programs that might be available to them.

Tim Sosinski, a member of the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition, agreed the county should be addressing lower income levels, not just residents who have moderate incomes.

"Howard is a county with significant wealth, but what people don't realize is there are homeless," and others with minimum-wage jobs, "and then there's this gap between 30 and 60 percent where there is no vehicle to serve this population" of young professionals or service workers, he said.