In the struggle to provide more affordable housing in wealthy Howard County, the opening of Port Capital Village's 84 apartments in Elkridge represents a milestone of sorts.
The seven three-story garden apartment buildings are part of the first all-subsidized rental complex for families constructed in the county in recent years.
"It's good to see affordable housing of any kind come along," said Andre J. De Verneil, a member of the Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing.
Howard is the priciest county for housing in the Baltimore region. The average price of a house sold in Howard County in March was about $444,800, compared with about $306,600 in the region.
The skyrocketing home prices have pushed up rents, leaving many limited-income working people hard-pressed to find local places to live. Adding to the pressure are residents forced from mobile home parks that have closed for redevelopment along the U.S. 1 corridor.
Sharply higher home prices also made it financially harder to scatter affordable, for-sale housing in new developments -- a practice that had largely replaced the construction of subsidized rental developments.
"I think there's a fairly strong demand out there for this type of product," said Stacy L. Spann, the county's housing director, who said he welcomes the project. The county plans a formal opening July 12.
However needed Port Capital Village is, it's just a drop in the bucket, say county affordable housing advocates, who also worry about the effect of more large projects like it.
"The one concern we would have is concentrating them all in the same facility. It's better to sprinkle them around," De Verneil.
Officials of Ingerman Group, the Cherry Hill, N.J.-based developer of Port Capital Village, said they've been inundated with up to 500 applications, and they expect to be fully leased in a month.
"There's been such a demand that we are just blown away by the applications," said Marti Rountree, the firm's regional manager. County school employees, health care workers, and recreation and parks employees have applied, she said, along with retail workers at Arundel Mills, the giant shopping mall on Route 100 in nearby Anne Arundel County.
Rents at Port Capital range from $528 a month for two-bedroom units to $975 for three-bedroom units, depending on income. Rents typically are from $1,000 to $1,800 a month in the county. The complex serves families with annual incomes ranging from a ceiling of $24,240 for two people to $45,480 for a family of four.
Catherine Afra, 56, an instructional assistant in Howard County schools, and her 17-year old son John, a rising senior at Long Reach High, welcomed the chance to move to Port Capital, she said.
"I love it. I totally love it," Catherine Afra said, showing a visitor her new home. Compared to the basement apartment in a private home she and her son rented for two years, the view of trees from their second-floor apartment is a welcome change, she said. The apartments come with new kitchen appliances and are air-conditioned.
A school secretary saw a notice about Port Capital in January and alerted her to it, Afra said. She and her son are among the first occupants.
"I wanted to get out of the basement, and I can't afford Columbia," the former fashion marketing professional said.
"It's totally awesome," her son chimed in.
Jennifer Bancewicz, 21, a medical assistant in a physician's office and part-time college student, is another happy tenant. The single mother of a 21-month-old son, she has a two-bedroom unit for $690 a month, she said..
She and her son, Alex, were living with her mother in a nearby housing development, so she could watch the new apartments being built, she said.
Port Capital Village "is a small step in the right direction, but we really need to focus on the entire spectrum of housing needs," said William A. Ross, a member of the county's Housing Commission.
Ross and other housing advocates have been pushing Spann to produce a comprehensive plan for providing more affordable housing for people of all income levels. County officials have promised a plan by fall.
Port Capital Village sits directly across the street from the Aladdin Mobile Home Park, a source of traditional affordable housing due to close in September to make way for townhouses. As in other trailer parks, many of the mobile homes are too old to move -- if residents could find a place to take them. That means pressure on scarce affordable housing.
Aladdin is the fourth and largest county mobile home park to close as the U.S. 1 corridor from Elkridge to Laurel is being developed, dropping its old industrial image for increasingly upscale townhouse and mixed-use projects.
Several more rental apartment complexes, which mix subsidized units in commercial-residential projects, are under way along the U.S. 1 corridor. They include Ashbury Courts, a 140-unit mixed-use development in North Laurel that will include 21 subsidized units, and Patuxent Square, an 80-apartment affordable apartment mixed-use project in Savage. Another project, Mission Place in Jessup, is planned, but is not yet under way. It is to have 61 moderate-income apartments out of 262 apartments and 116 townhouses.
Port Capital Village has a separate community building that houses a laundry center and all the mail boxes for residents, as well as a small management office and community meeting room. A colorful tot lot sits outside. Half the units are two-bedroom apartments with a total of 875 square feet, and the other half are three-bedroom apartments with a total of 1,117 square feet.
John S. Randolph, a development principal at Ingerman, said county and state subsidies paid about half the cost of the $11 million Port Capital Village project, enabling the lower rents. The firm would like to build more such complexes in Howard County, Randolph said.
"The bottom line is affordable housing, at the level we are pricing it, is a slam-dunk in Howard County," he said.