Karen Schultz is a one-year veteran of Howard County's housing wars, and she is no starry-eyed dreamer.
But now, the 35-year-old middle school teacher does have a dream for herself and her 5-year-old daughter. She hopes to win a chance to buy one of the nine new townhouses the county plans to raffle off Oct. 2 for just under half their $240,000 retail price.
Schultz is one of 347 first-time homebuyers who have applied for the lottery designed for middle-income people who live or work in the county, but can't afford wealthy Howard's escalating home prices without help.
County housing administrator Leonard Vaughan said 151 of those applicants have been found unqualified - most of them because their personal debts exceeded 41 percent of their income.
That means that as one of 196 qualified applicants remaining, Schultz has about a 1-in-20 chance of grabbing a house that she believes could profoundly change her life and the life of her daughter.
"It's a war for homes out there," she said, and it is doubly frustrating now, because the real estate market is so hot that even offering the asking price won't get you the house.
"An average home listed for $165,000 - the sellers are getting $180,000. It puts somebody like me, a teacher and a single parent, in a position where I'm unable to buy," she said.
Schultz is paying $900 a month in rent, and if she has to find housing elsewhere, she'll likely have to change jobs, too.
She would like to remain teaching and keep her daughter on a matching schedule in Howard schools, but she couldn't afford to pay the out-of-county tuition if she moved to Baltimore or Carroll counties, she said.
"I hope to be a homeowner in this county," Schultz said.
The lottery "makes me feel like the community values us as teachers" - though higher pay for teachers might help more, she said, "I am glad and grateful there is a lottery."
The drawing will be held in three weeks at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.
Howard County housing officials said they haven't analyzed the roster of lottery applicants to learn how many are civil servants, young single people or single mothers.
Priced out of market
Chris Nolan and Oslyn Cummings - each 24 and single, were raised in different parts of Howard County and decided to stay. Neither can afford a home at the going prices.
"I'm paying a really high amount in rent when I could add a few hundred [dollars] more and have a house. Taxes are killing me," said Cummings.
Nolan, a Glenelg native, is a financial administrator who works near Baltimore-Washington International Airport and shares a rental townhouse in Columbia with three friends - an arrangement that saves money, but won't work in the long term, he said.
Nolan said his house-hunting forays so far have been frustrating.
"You have to decide that day, or it's gone. I'd like to go ahead and make an investment and kind of settle down," he said.
Mary Palmieri, 33, who works as a mortgage loan processor, knows the problems.
She is divorced and has a 12-year-old daughter who attends a Howard County school, The apartment she has rented for four years now costs new tenants more than $150 more a month than she is paying. That means that if she moves, her rent will increase substantially.
"I just have reached a point where I feel I should own a home. Financially it makes more sense to me," Palmieri said.
The four are among dozens -including county police officers and firefighters - who earn between $35,600 and $53,120 annually and are in the pool.
Subsidized, but same
The $240,000 homes in the raffle are brick-front garage townhouses due to be built starting in November as part of the Cherrytree Park development near the intersection of U.S. 29 and Route 216 in southern Howard.
The nine winners will pay $118,700, if they qualify, under a county law requiring 10 percent of new homes in mixed-use developments be set aside for people with moderate incomes.
To make sure the subsidized homes look exactly the same as market-rate homes, the county will take a $21,300 second mortgage to cover the $140,000 cost of each unit.
County Executive James N. Robey will pick the first of 18 finalists, using a device similar to the one used by the Maryland State Lottery. The extra names guarantee enough takers in case any of the nine winners back out or can't get a mortgage, Vaughan said.
A second batch of eight homes at Cherrytree will be sold in such a lottery sometime next year, depending on how quickly the 170-home development approaches completion, said Vaughan. He expects to end up with about 145 qualified buyers, which, he said "shows there is a large demand for affordable housing."
Happy in the burbs
Nolan said several of his friends are looking for houses, too.
"I like living in the suburbs," he said, passing on the Canton and Fells Point urban experience that has drawn many young suburbanites to Baltimore.
Cummings, a systems engineer who works in Gateway Office Park in Columbia, said she grew up in Columbia and wants to stay.
"I like Columbia because it's quiet. I'm not a city girl," she said.
For night life, she meets friends in Baltimore or Washington, she said.
Palmieri has thought about buying a condominium apartment, but "the square footage is smaller and the resale value is really not there."
She "was thrilled," she said, when she found out about the lottery.
"I think it's an excellent program and a good opportunity for moderate-income families - especially single moms - and it's in a good neighborhood. It was like an answer to a prayer," she said.
Steeled for a letdown
If she doesn't win, she's prepared to be stoic.
"I just accept the fact that it's just not meant to be right now. Whatever else is around the corner will be a good opportunity," she said.