After a multi-step application and qualification process by the hospital, Nitkin said 10 of the 17 applicants were placed into a lottery for four available apartments.
Thanks to Live Where You Work, this is the first time Walls said she could afford to live in Howard County after working in Columbia for 13 years.
“Since I’ve worked in Howard County, I’ve always wanted to live here. So when I saw [the Live Where You Work program announcement], I said, ‘This is for me,’ ” Walls said. “I was excited because I had been wanting to come to Columbia for the longest time.”
Walls previously lived in Anne Arundel County and commuted to Howard General, located off Little Patuxent Parkway. She said the drive could be draining, especially after long days. As a certified nursing assistant, she works three days in a row for 12-hour shifts.
Walls joins other lottery winners for up to three years in subsidized housing in the county. The subsidies were intentionally designed so recipients would not spend more than 30% of their income on rent and could save money to potentially become permanent Howard County residents after their three years are up.
The subsidies, paid for by the hospital and the Columbia Downtown Housing Corp., will be paid directly to eligible landlords in downtown Columbia. Participants had a choice of four apartment complexes near the hospital and The Mall in Columbia in which to live.
Howard County General Hospital is currently the only participant in the program, but Kelly Cimino, director of the county’s Department of Housing and Community Development, hopes that will change soon.
“We’re kind of seeing how this first employer goes before we cast a wide net,” Cimino said.
Howard General is the second-largest private employer in the county — behind the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory — employing more than 1,700 workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Maryland Department of Commerce. And the hospital is close to downtown Columbia, making it a natural fit for the program, Nitkin said.
“When we learned about the program, we were all in,” Nitkin said. “We embraced the concept from the start.”
Using other municipalities’ experiences, like the Live Near Your Work program in the city of Baltimore, Howard County General Hospital created guidelines for the program that would be fair to all potential employee participants. Employees needed to have worked at the hospital for at least one year and couldn’t have any disciplinary problems in order to qualify; they then had to attend a mandatory workshop, officially apply and enter the lottery.
“We know a lot of our workforce has to travel from pretty far away, and they’d love the opportunity to live close to the hospital,” Nitkin said.
Employers also get to decide how many employees they can support with their funding, according to Cimino.
For Nitkin and Howard County General Hospital, that number is four for now, with the potential to increase over time. Nitkin said the hospital is searching for additional funding to have more participants.
The median income in Howard County is $115,576, according to Cimino, with half of the county’s residents making less than that. She said the average two-bedroom rental apartment is affordable to families making $65,000.
“Families making less than that will struggle to find housing affordable to them [within Howard County],” Cimino said. “By the end of three years, the goal is that [the Live Where You Work participants] will have been able to save money and maybe transition into another housing option.”
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the fair market rent in the Howard County area for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,376. Fair market rent is defined as a gross rent estimate that includes the base rent, as well as any essential utilities the tenant would be responsible for paying, such as gas or electric.
Cimino said because of the high housing prices in Howard, lower-income individuals frequently have to commute from outside the county. The Live Where You Work program stresses the benefits of living close to work.
That proximity is something Walls said she will take advantage of as the weather starts to warm up.
“I know a lot of people [at the hospital] who have more than one job and do a lot of overtime [to make ends meet],” Walls said. “If you do have the opportunity to go do it, I would definitely tell [other employees] to go do it.”
Nitkin said he’s found the experience of seeing employees selected for the program gratifying.
“Howard County is growing and aging faster than any county in the state. The needs for health care services for this population is tremendous … the more we can do for [the people who provide those services], the better it’s going to be for the entire community,” he said.
It was 10 days until Christmas last year when Walls and her 2-year-old son Elijah got the best gift of all: a new place to call home.
When Walls moved into her Columbia apartment Dec. 15, she said she hoped it would not be the last time she could call herself a Howard County resident.