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Housing for a graying county


Nell Crawford, by her own admission, created a "monster" with her passion for cultivating enormous and colorful exhibits of flowers, plants and shrubs patterned after the Great British gardens.

Her pursuit ultimately consumed half of the 3 acres that Crawford and her husband, Larry, lived on in Baltimore County. That was not a problem until age began creeping up on them.

"I frankly drove us to the point where we couldn't physically take care of it any longer," Crawford says.

The Crawfords sold the house and recently moved into the Evergreens, a luxurious, age-restricted apartment complex in Columbia.

They and the Evergreens exemplify broader trends: the graying of Howard County and the explosion of housing to serve them.

Age-restricted units - those reserved for people 55 or older - now represent the largest component of the county's housing industry.

In the past five years, about 2,000 senior housing units - predominantly townhouses and condominiums - have sprung up in the county, and at least half that many are in various stages of planning or construction.

"It's past the novelty stage, but it's still a fairly new phenomena," says Steve Lafferty, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning and chairman of a county task force on senior housing.

There are a number of reasons for this trend, but one overrides all others: The county is in the early stages of profound change, which will significantly alter its demographics and produce an avalanche of economic, social and political issues.

The over-55 age group is the fastest-growing segment. It is projected to increase by more than 46,000, to about 98,000 people, and will comprise almost one-third of the county's population by 2030 - twice what it is today.

No end in sight

That shift is not unique to Howard County. There are an estimated 78 million people in the country who are at or nearing retirement. The Census Bureau says the 65-and-older age group will grow faster than the total population in every state, and their numbers will double in more than half the states, including Maryland, in the next 15 years.

In anticipation of this transformation, builders across the country are constructing housing units for seniors. And there is no end in sight.

"Just the very edge is qualified to live in age-restricted dwellings now," says Jeffrey Jenkins, assistant director of the Senior Housing Council for the National Association of Home Builders in Washington. "It's going to be really huge in the next five to 10 years."

Virtually all of the units built and planned in Howard County are at the high end, most beginning at about $400,000 and quickly escalating. But the units are selling briskly, despite the prices.

"It's a very healthy housing market in the Washington-Baltimore market," Jenkins says. "It's very strong right now."

Though the building boom is serving an undisputed need, it is also creating an unexpected problem.

"The assumption is that the majority of the housing would be affordable to a majority of the people," says Leonard S. Vaughan, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development. "Anywhere from a minimum of 50 percent, up to 70 percent of the residents, can't afford to buy in the county."

One result is that many people who want to move to an age-restricted community when they near or reach retirement, will be unable to afford to do so, officials say.

But the ramifications do not end there. Concern is growing that some people will be forced to leave the county as they age.

"We hear stories about people who've been here a long time who are moving to Carroll County and Frederick County - some on the Eastern Shore - because they can find a home ... that they can afford," says Phyllis Madachy, administrator of the Office on Aging.

Counting the losses

"We will be a place where only dual-income, young families can afford to be," she says. "I don't think that's how Howard County envisions itself."

That loss would affect the county well beyond mere population numbers, says Terri Hansen, housing coordinator at the Office on Aging.

"We lose, other than what seniors provide to the neighborhood, what they provide to the community at large," she says. "They are a huge volunteer component."

The skyrocketing prices worry officials, but one factor behind them comes as a shock: Most buyers of senior housing are demanding generous space.

"People are going down, but they're not going down to 1,800 or 2,000 square feet, which is what we thought might be the market," Lafferty says. "They're downsizing to an extent, but mainly it's in the upkeep of the outside of the house, not as much the inside."

There are exceptions. Condominiums at The Enclave at Ellicott Hills in Ellicott City range from about 1,300 square feet to 1,569 square feet.

But most of the units built today are up to 2,500 square feet, and some are much larger.

Units at The Villas atSnowden Overlook, just off Route 175, are at least 3,200 square feet, and one model offers more than 3,400 square feet - larger than most single-family homes.

Two other characteristics differentiate today's aging segment from those before it, and both have affected the housing boom.

The first is that fewer people want to pull up roots.

While many seniors from the Eisenhower generation flocked to Del Webb-like communities in Florida and the Sun Belt, this wave of retirees generally is staying put.

"We're finding, particularly among the boomers ... that a lot of these buyers want to remain closer to home," says Jenkins.

And increasingly they want to be in or near cities because of their cultural and entertainment diversity.

Primarily, though, they want to remain near their children and grandchildren, Jenkins says.

The second difference is that that many people are not looking for a place just to live out their time, which has forced developers to change their products.

The majority of senior housing built today is for "active adults."

Some of the buyers are retired, but many others are semiretired or still fully employed. Virtually all, though, are involved in civic activities, entertaining and community organizations.

"These are people who are still enjoying life," says Amy Maluski, sales manager of townhouses at The Enclave. "These are people who might be in age a senior, but they're still active and they still continue to enjoy their lifestyle. They still have the same quality of life that they did in their previous home."

As a result, many age-restricted developments provide large swimming pools, game rooms, workout centers, libraries, putting greens and other amenities.

The larger and more luxurious the unit, the more it will cost, says Jenkins. That is compounded in Howard County, where the price of land has soared because of dwindling supply and because the county restricts the number of housing units built annually.

The result is that developers are receiving premium prices for all housing - including that built for those at or near retirement.

The final 12 townhouses at The Enclave are in the mid- and upper $500,000s, as are the villas at Snowden Overlook.

That's a problem for many, even people who are reaping huge profits by selling the homes they lived in for years, officials say.

"This is not a time in their lives where investing that entire profit in that next home makes a lot of sense for them because it's a period of time when income is static," says Madachy. "It's also a time when there are extraordinary out-of-pocket expenses that are related to health and health care, that are unlike expenses at any other time of our lives - probably the exception is when a family puts a kid through college."

Nell and Larry Crawford did not want to own a home again, but they also grew tired of renting a traditional apartment.

The Evergreens in Columbia solved both problems.

"When you live in multifamily units, everything that goes on around you involves you as well," Nell Crawford says. "We found it sometimes to be a little rowdy. Here, it is very quiet."

It is more than quiet. The 156-unit development offers lush, deep carpeting, marble vanity tops, maple cabinets, a greenhouse, spa and pool. There's a library, game and billiard room, fitness center, clubroom, cafe and secured storage bins in the underground parking garage.

"I don't think you'd have all the facilities that you have here if you bought," says Nell Crawford. "And quite frankly, we wanted somebody else to have the responsibility for fixing things, doing things. I think we have the best of both worlds."

Rent ranges from $1,060 to $1,980 a month.

"The active-adult marketplace is a very diverse group, and growing tremendously year by year," says John D. Rhoad Jr., president of RMJ Development Group LLC, which built the Evergreens. "Within that demand there's a lot of people who have lived in homes, but they want flexibility and are looking for something nice that they can rent. That's exactly the market that we're addressing."

But many cannot afford the units being built to serve them, officials say.

"People should have some control over where they live, both in terms of community and house," Madachy says. "And when these market forces are in essence limiting that ability ... I don't think that's really good for the health of the county."

High-end developments for seniors

More than 2,000 housing units restricted to people at least 55 years old have been built in Howard County in the past five years, and hundreds more are planned. Below is a sampling of the high-end developments that have been completed or are under construction:

Evergreens in Columbia, by RMJ Development Group. Apartments starting at $1,060 a month.

Hearthstone at the Courtyards in Ellicott City, by Ryan Homes. Condominiums begin in the low $300s, and villas in the mid-$400s

Hearthstone at Ellicott Meadows in Ellicott City, by Ryan Classics. Single-family units, beginning at about $521,000.

Snowden Overlook in Columbia, by Ryland Group Inc. and Lennar Corp. Townhouses start at about $475,000.

The Bella Via, Ellicott Meadows in Ellicott City, by NV Homes. Villas starting at about $532,000.

The Enclave at Ellicott Hills in Ellicott City, by Bozzuto Homes and Chateau Builders. Condominiums begin at about $240,000 and townhouses in the mid-$500s.

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