Howard housing reaches the roof Affordability lowest in tri-county area

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Randi and Brian Jones know firsthand how hard it is to afford housing on an average income in Howard County, the most expensive place to live in the Baltimore region.

The Joneses pay $750 a month to rent a townhouse in Columbia's Wilde Lake village and are trying to buy the place.

Though they have a solidly middle-class household income -- about $30,000 -- they still take extraordinary steps to make ends meet.

To avoid day care costs for their 4-year-old and 2-year-old children -- expenses that would break their budget -- Randi Jones works days and Brian Jones works nights.

Apart from weekends, they scarcely see each other. They pass twice a day as one rises for work and the other returns home.

"We argue and talk with one another on Saturdays," says Randi Jones with a laugh.

"We cut back on small things, like going to the movies as a family -- that's a luxury.

"Everything is so expensive here -- land, gas, shopping," she says. "I don't know how hard it's going to get with this house. I just don't know."

For Howard County residents such as the Joneses, affordable housing is an oxymoron.

Census data from 1990 show that for households earning $20,000 or less, only 4 percent of Howard County's housing is considered affordable.

That is the lowest proportion of any jurisdiction in the Baltimore region.

As state and federal housing funds shrink, experts say, it may be more difficult than ever to find an affordable home to rent or buy in Howard.

"Are there any market-rate affordable units in Howard County? No, not really, " says Leonard S. Vaughan, director of the county Housing Commission.

"It's possible to find them, I suppose. But they are few and very far between. Basically, what makes them affordable are any [government] subsidies attached to them."

A low-income household, according to federal guidelines, earns less than $27,000 a year -- half the median family income of $54,000 for the Baltimore region.

For those earning the minimum income, Vaughan considers a rent of no more than $675 -- and a home cost of about $75,000 -- to be feasible.

Howard County's housing is in another financial league entirely.

Howard's median household income is $80,000 -- the highest of any Maryland jurisdiction.

And last year, the average cost of a single-family home in Howard was $173,838, the highest in the Baltimore area and third highest in the state behind Talbot and Montgomery counties.

The average includes new and older houses, says Kristen Josephson of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

On average, rental units in Howard go for $874 a month, county housing statistics show.

Applying federal guidelines, which define low income as half the median family income in a given area, Howard County's low-income families earn $40,000 a year or less -- a middle-class income almost anywhere else.

In January, County Councilman C. Vernon Gray sponsored legislation that would make it mandatory for Howard County's new mixed-use developments -- those that combine residences with businesses -- to set aside as many as 10 percent of their homes as affordable.

"The fact is, we have people who work in this county -- service workers, teachers, police, firefighters -- who can't afford to live here," Gray says. "That's not right. We need to make provisions for them."

Statewide, according to the 1990 census, one in six housing units rents for $500 or less a month or sells for $50,000 or less, the state's definition of housing affordable to families earning $20,000 or less.

But in Howard, only one housing unit in 27 meets that definition, the data show.

A study conducted by the county housing office last year showed that there were 1,599 apartments and homes in Howard in which rental payments are subsidized by the state or federal government, often with what are known as Section 8 subsidies.

Neither the state nor the county housing office keeps track of how many rental units in the county are considered to be affordable without subsidies.

But Vaughan says there are so few that their numbers are negligible.

In Columbia, some apartments are advertised at rents less than $500 -- the state's cutoff for affordable housing for a family of four -- but these usually are one-bedroom units.

Similarly, the selling prices of some one-bedroom Columbia condominiums are advertised at less than $50,000 -- again, too small for families.

Apart from government subsidies, low-income families can get help buying or renting a home through some county banks and through the Affordable Housing Alliance (AHA), a nonprofit agency in Columbia's Town Center that helps prospective homeowners with credit problems and tight budgets.

"If these things were naturally being provided for in the marketplace, there would be no need for AHA," says Bill Ross, who runs the organization. "The housing is just not there for these folks."

Driving Howard's high cost of housing are some of the state's highest land prices.

Outside of Columbia, $75,000 to $100,000 will buy a half-acre lot, says Kent Finkelsen of the county assessment office.

In Columbia, where lots of this size are less available and land is usually more expensive, the same $75,000 to $100,000 will buy lots only a quarter-acre or less, he says. A 3-acre lot in western Howard can exceed $150,000.

"Even for us [AHA] to buy existing property is so tough because land prices are high and there's a very limited amount available," Developers and housing activists say the location of the county -- convenient to Baltimore and Washington -- combined with highly regarded public schools and a relatively low crime rate make Howard very attractive to prospective homebuyers.

And many are willing and able to pay the inflated housing costs, says Earl Armiger, president of Orchard Development Corp. in Ellicott City.

"Especially since the beginning of Columbia, developers felt they could charge more for the land, and they did it -- and they got it," he said. "The builders and buyers are willing to pay. It's a basic supply-and-demand thing."

Fewer low-cost homes

As a result, development of affordable housing in Howard has slowed in recent years.

Though the county housing office has several projects under development, a study from last year showed that only three subsidized rental developments -- with a total of 238 units -- have been built in Howard since 1990.

The average subsidized housing unit in the county is almost 20 years old, the study showed.

Vaughan of the county housing office and other affordable housing advocates say a "stigma" often is attached to affordable housing, such that only with reluctance does he provide data on the situation.

The numbers, Vaughan fears, might fuel opposition: Some use such data to argue that the county already has enough -- or too many -- poor people.

Others blame the poor for whatever goes wrong where they live, he says.

"One of the requirements of our [housing assistance] programs is that you don't tell anyone you're in our programs," Vaughan says.

'Those people'

"Why? Because pretty soon a kid [living in subsidized housing] hits another kid, and it's not about kids fighting -- it's about 'Those people are messing up our neighborhood.' That's what we need to avoid."

That has happened even in Columbia, where 30 years ago developer James W. Rouse planned to set aside 10 percent of homes in the new town for low- or moderate-income residents.

Today, Columbia has 80 percent of subsidized housing in Howard County, according to the county housing office.

But in recent years, some Columbia residents have opposed construction of affordable housing in their neighborhoods because with it, they say, come crime and schools burdened with children who are less prepared.

Columbia's newest village, River Hill, has no affordable housing.

Even before it was built, some residents in that area openly fought plans for condominiums and apartments.

The Rouse Co. is drafting plans for townhouses and condominiums -- and possibly apartments -- in the village but no low- or moderate-income housing is included in these plans, according to Nancy Tucker of Rouse. The issue is not settled, she said.

More than a fair share

In Long Reach village, a new housing development called Streamwood -- 18 rentals and 43 single-family homes on Snowden River Parkway near Tamar Drive, earmarked for households earning $18,000 to $30,000 -- has been stalled and revised since it first was proposed in 1995, Vaughan says.

The reason: Some Long Reach residents say they don't want more affordable housing units in their neighborhoods because they already have more than their fair share.

Indeed, county housing statistics show that 12 percent of the county's subsidized homes are in Long Reach village -- the third highest proportion of any Howard County neighborhood.

Columbia's Harper's Choice village has the most, with 17 percent of the county's total; Oakland Mills, with 14 percent, has the second most.

As one Long Reach resident who asked not to be named put it: "We don't need more poor people in this county or this village. We like it just the way it is. We don't need more problems."

Construction on Streamwood -- being built by Enterprise Construction Corp. -- is to begin within the next six months and to be completed by the end of next year, says Chickie Grayson, head of construction for Enterprise.

Ultimately, opponents say, affordable housing drives down nearby property values.

NIMBY syndrome

Some say the opponents are nothing more than NIMBYs -- an acronym for those who resist change by saying, "Not in my back yard."

"The NIMBYs really have a lot of say in Howard County," says Ar- miger of Orchard Development. "And there are so many."

The result is an affordable housing market in which the offerings are paltry -- as one single woman with a moderate income recently encountered.

The residential counselor, in her 30s and earning $26,000 a year, looked for months for a house she could afford in Howard County.

She even found a real estate agent who works with moderate-income clients.

But she found nothing and eventually gave up, she says.

"The houses are all up there [in Howard]," says the woman, who asked that her name not be used. "You work in the area and you'd love to live there, but it is so hard. And I would really, really love to put my son in Howard County schools."

Two weeks ago, she found a three-bedroom townhouse in Catonsville "in the low 80s" and gave up her dream of living in Howard.

4 This situation is not unusual, says Ross of AHA.

Real-estate commissions

The real estate agents "are not doing a good job, and they're not motivated to do a good job," he says.

Real estate agents are paid about 6 percent or 7 percent of the price or annual rent of properties they handle, says Kay Armstrong Baker, president-elect of the Howard County Association of Realtors.

So for some low-income sales and rentals, "the commissions are so low it hardly pays the gas," says Natalie Lobe, a real estate agent and longtime activist for low-income housing in the county.

Lobe says she once handled a lot of low-income clients looking for housing but no longer.

"You really have to put the blood, sweat and tears into it," Lobe says. "I'd love to still do more of it, but there's only so much you can do without getting paid. I really understand the justification for not getting involved in this."

But, says Baker, "I have never heard anybody say they didn't want to work with someone because they were low-income. Our code of ethics says we help people find homes."

Assistance for loans

In many instances, therefore, those with moderate incomes must turn to special programs.

Kathleen McDonald got help from AHA. The Silver Spring native works at Calico Corners fabric store in Severna Park and makes about $25,000 a year.

"That's really a funny salary area," she says. "I can't really afford to buy anything, but I can't save much either. What I could afford would have been in a poorer community. I just don't feel that it's as safe, you know? Especially for a single woman."

McDonald, 31, says she had "issues with credit" in her 20s. She struggled for months to qualify for a loan. Finally, in fall 1995, AHA helped her get a $76,000 loan to buy a three-level home in Elkridge.

"I think anybody who wants to do what I did -- they have to be willing to do it, you know?" McDonald says.

"They're not going to hand you a house. You have to really want it."

Affordable housing

Available housing in the Baltimore area affordable for households earning $20,000 or less:

Anne Arundel: 7%

Baltimore City: 49%

Baltimore County: 14%

Carroll: 11%

Harford: 13%

Howard: 4%

Note: The state defines affordable housing for families in this income bracket as rental units costing less than $500 per month and single-family homes costing less than $50,000.

SOURCE: 1990 census, Maryland Office of Planning

Pub Date: 6/15/97

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