He said the MIHU program reaches just a sliver of the market and only a handful of interested home buyers meet those narrow income requirements.

Carbo said the county is anticipating 35 new affordable housing units on the market next year with developments along U.S. 1 nearing completion. The county has 120 days to turn them over to qualified buyers, but if the agency can't fill the units by then, the developer can then sell the units for the higher price.

He said he would like to the MIHU program expanded to other areas of the county — such as Columbia, or other single-family districts.

He added, "we're trying to do all of these things without spending money."

The weakened economy has made it increasingly difficult for many homeowners to hold onto their homes and others to purchase homes, all while federal and state funds have dried up. For instance, five years ago, Carbo said, the department had $4 million from transfer taxes, while last year's budget was less than $2.5 million, which he said barely pays the department's salaries.

He said one of the most important projects for the department is providing closing help to moderate-income buyers, which is an added incentive for MIHU buyers. He said they are hoping to get $1 million next year, up from $500,000 last year.

"We have some of the highest settlement costs in the country," he said.

But, he added, the possible teacher pension shift looms over the county, which could mean fewer county resources. "That program is in jeopardy if the [teacher] pension shift happens." If that happens, Carbo said, his department would likely have to cut programs and lay off staff.

As the county has worked to improve the quality of life for those renters who are at lower income levels, the department is also redeveloping two public housing complexes with federal funds: the newly coined Monarch Mills, formerly known as Guilford Gardens in Columbia, and Hilltop Housing in Ellicott City will accommodate subsidized renters, but also market-rate renters, which the county anticipates will help make the developments more financially sustainable long term.

"We could very quickly go out and build low-income units, but what is the quality of those units, the quality of life, the sustainability?" Carbo said. "That's sort of been the problem of affordable housing."

While some might question how successful the project will be — why would people pay more than their neighbors when the units are identical? — Carbo said the climate and the location make the units attractive for prospective buyers.

At Monarch Mills, which has recently been advertised on banners at The Mall in Columbia, 82 percent of market-rate and low-income units have been leased, he said.

"We think it is a good model to use in the county," he said.

Another project the county has recently completed is homes at Greenwood, which use green and universal design, meaning it can be used by those who are disabled, and went to eligible low-income families.

As the county works to make housing opportunities for potential buyers and renters, Carbo said, another challenge the department is confronted with is dropping homes values. He said his office was approached by the Howard County Association of Realtors over the concerns of the increasing number of properties in foreclosure.

A program he said the department would like to implement is buying up foreclosure properties and reselling them to moderate-income buyers, but he's not sure there will be enough funding.

He's also concerned about more and more apartment complexes that are moderately priced until they are sold to a different owner and renovated, with rents raised substantially. He mentioned one apartment building on U.S. 40, where rents had jumped several hundred dollars after it was renovated.

But despite all the difficulties, Carbo said he's up for the challenge.

"This is the most exciting job I've ever had," he said. "What's great is when you get to see the fruits of your labor. You get to see the faces of the people who buy that house."

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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