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Affordable homes go to a fortunate few

The Baltimore Sun

As Howard County officials prepare to choose buyers for two heavily discounted new garage townhouses today, Patricia Tolson still is trying to get used to her good fortune.

Tolson's name was chosen at random from among 28 qualified applicants for the right to pay $200,000 for a 42 percent share of a large, renovated home on Columbia's Pamplona Road -- the same street where she grew up and where she and her 14-year old son, Anthony, have been living with her parents.

"Is it for real then?" the 35-year-old former soldier said Monday, describing her reaction to winning the housing lottery.

"I wake up every day and say, 'Mom, was it a dream?' I'm trying to explain to my son that it's not free. I have to pay for it."

Tolson jumped up, her hand over her mouth at the drawing Saturday at Oakland Mills High School after County Executive Ken Ulman reached into the golden metal cylinder, dropping and then retrieving what he said was the same envelope before opening it and reading Tolson's name.

The county used the drawing to highlight a "Come Home to Howard County" housing fair, complete with services from other county departments, ranging from fire to health and aging. In the school gym, mortgage brokers, builders, banks and real estate agencies occupied booths to supply information to the several hundred attendees.

Stacy Spann, Howard's housing director, said the fair is the first of what will become a twice-yearly event for people looking for housing opportunities in the county.

"You have housing needs, personal finance needs, general information and credit needs. You can come here twice a year and gather as much information as possible." The next fair is to be held Sept. 29, he said.

Tolson's new house, a half-block from Oakland Mills Middle School, which Anthony attends, is in what Howard housing officials call their shared equity program for moderate-income residents.

The county Housing Commission bought the empty, neglected, 36-year-old frame split level for $350,000 and hired contractor Jared Spahn to renovate it for $50,000. He added a large two-story addition on the rear that provides a spacious new master bedroom suite and a large family room below. Also new are floor coverings, kitchen appliances, windows and siding. The house's appraised value is $475,000.

The idea was to help the neighborhood, where residents were concerned about the condition of the house, and to help a middle-income family who could not afford to buy a home.

At the drawing Saturday, Ulman said, "This is just the beginning. I've instructed our people at housing to be much more aggressive in creating opportunities."

Although the drawing involved just one family and one house, he said, "It's symbolic of the direction of the county for the future."

Today's drawing in the County Council chambers will choose two prequalified buyers for new 1,400-square-foot townhouses in Cherrytree Park, off U.S. 29 and Route 216. The buyers will pay $140,000 for a one-third share in the homes, the majority of which are owned by the Housing Commission. Their appraised value is $432,000 each.

A third drawing for 23 homes that have not been built -- part of the county's Moderate Income Housing Unit program -- will be held at 5 p.m. Friday in the County Council chambers. The dwellings include 13 garage townhouses, each 1,596 square feet, at Shipley's Grant, a project at Route 100 and Snowden River Parkway, and 10 two-bedroom condominium apartments at Elkridge Crossing on U.S. 1 on the site of an old drive-in movie theater.

The housing commission will retain majority ownership of Tolson's house, and the $40,000-a- year Social Security employee will pay about $1,500 a month for her share of the mortgage and property taxes, according to Thomas Carbo, deputy county housing director. Tolson said a 30 percent disability from injuries she received during her eight years of military service gave her enough income to qualify for the lottery.

Whenever the house is sold, the commission will find a new limited-income buyer to replace Tolson.

In the meantime, Tolson's good fortune is like a family homecoming. Her parents, Gerald and Diane Tolson, have lived on the block since 1971, and two years ago, when neighbors on either side moved out, two of her brothers bought the homes and moved in.

Three years ago, Tolson said she and her son moved back with her parents to save money. The understanding was that they were to move out on their own again by July 1.

On Saturday, her parents, a sister and her son attended the drawing, and they were all excited when her name was chosen.

"I love Howard County, the school system," Tolson said. "I want to stay in Howard County, but I couldn't afford it. I'm on a government salary."

"It's awesome," was Anthony's only comment, and later, as the family visited the house, he was trying to decide which bedroom would be his.

Gerald Tolson, 63, said he is retired after a 30-year career at IBM and later at Lockheed Martin. "I'm one of the original [Columbia] settlers," he said, raising five children on Pamplona Road.

"That's phenomenal," he said about his daughter's good luck. "We felt, why not?"

Judy Pittman, a neighbor on Pamplona, said members of the Oakland Mills Revitalization Committee recommended the house to the county for possible revitalization. Neighborhood volunteers staffed the house for open houses.

"The owner moved out 15 months ago. It was in bad shape," she said. The renovation and addition is "fantastic" from the neighborhood's perspective, she said.

Other applicants had high hopes, too, but they were disappointed.

Russ and Mandy Stinchcomb said they had lived in Howard County in an apartment, but moved to Glen Burnie to buy their first home. Holding their two children, Dylan, 1 and Hailey, 4, they said they want to come back to Howard.

"We find ourselves traveling to Columbia all the time and wishing we'd never left. We've been looking for something," Russ said.

Mandy, 27, is a stay-at-home mother, and Russ, 36, does computer work at a hospital. Their income does not allow a retail home purchase in Howard, where the median home price is now about $450,000.

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