An incentive to live closer to downtown; Program offers city employees $3,000 toward closing costs


A line started forming the morning after the Westminster Common Council approved a program last week to provide $3,000 toward closing costs for city employees who choose to live close to downtown.

Officials hope employers such as Western Maryland College and Carroll County General Hospital will participate in the state's 2-year-old Live Near Your Work program.

"Obviously, this could be used as a recruiting tool," said Karen Blandford, manager of housing and community development for the city.

The program works like this: A homebuyer gets $3,000 to use toward settlement costs on a house that is relatively close to the buyer's workplace, as long as it will be the person's principal residence.

The city, state and employer each contribute $1,000.

Tuesday, the morning after the council voted to set aside $20,000 for the program, six city employees expressed interest, Blandford said.

"I could barely get into my office," said Blandford, who found people waiting for her that morning wanting to know how to apply and wanting to see a map of eligible neighborhoods.

For its employees, Westminster would contribute the city's and the employer's share. Blandford said that after she gets the expected state approval, she will work to sign up other city businesses and organizations in the program.

The Live Near Your Work program was approved by the General Assembly in spring 1997, with heavy lobbying by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. It was designed to revitalize neighborhoods and discourage long commutes that add to traffic and smog.

About 200 homeowners have used the grants in six counties and cities. About half of those have been in Baltimore, said Edward J. McDonough, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

Employers such as the Johns Hopkins University campuses, several law firms in Silver Spring, an electrical supply house in Hagerstown and the town of Denton on the Eastern Shore were among the first to participate.

Tailored program

The cities and counties that participate can tailor the program to fit their goals for revitalizing neighborhoods.

Baltimore allows homebuyers to choose from all but the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. Westminster will target the downtown area, hoping to boost the number of owner-occupied homes along Main Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, Sullivan Avenue and Center Street.

Cities also can set a minimum period during which the buyer must live in the house after the sale. Westminster will require a homeowner to live in the house for at least five years, or pay back the money as a loan.

19 on the market

Blandford said that in her latest check, she found 19 homes on the market in the designated neighborhoods. They range from a $64,900 rowhouse to a $225,000 Colonial on West Main Street. The average price in those neighborhoods is $108,000, she said.

Westminster has chosen to allow its 181 full-time and contractual employees to be eligible. Blandford said that although six employees have shown interest, not all may follow through, and five applicants by the end of this year would be "ambitious."

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