County looks to be a landlord

The Baltimore Sun

They are not part of any Howard County housing program, but three county-owned homes on large lots backing to Centennial Park are available to rent.

The county's Department of Recreation and Parks spent from $450,000 to $954,500 to buy each of the spacious houses that line Route 108 near the park entrance on a combined 4.5 acres, and is looking for qualified renters. A fourth county-owned home in the row has been rented for years.

Plans are to widen the road and eventually demolish the houses to build a new picnic area and more parking for the park, but they likely will stand for years, said Gary J. Arthur, county recreation and parks director.

"I have so many projects on my board, I don't know if we'll ever get to it," he said.

In a county where townhouses can bring $2,000 a month in rent, the deal could be attractive, particularly for middle-income people with large families.

Rents for the three homes range from $1,800 to $2,300 a month for the largest house, a columned white building with a large driveway and a two-car garage, sitting on 1.4 acres.

"That's what we're asking. We will negotiate," Arthur said.

Although finding affordable housing is a major problem in Howard County, these units are not being used for that purpose. Instead, the rents -- like recreation league fees and other income -- will help bolster the Department of Recreation and Parks budget.

Advocates for affordable housing said the houses could have been leased to civil servants or used to help limited-income families rather than rented to boost the recreation budget.

"There are a lot of creative things that could be done," said Robert M. Buchmeier, a member of the Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing.

Arthur said his agency has used homes in its possession to help community nonprofits that need temporary quarters, or to house families facing hardships referred by the Housing Department.

He noted that another home owned by his agency is temporarily housing administrative offices for the private Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center while a new building is under construction.

The houses to be rented near Centennial Park feature generously sized rooms, hardwood floors, brick fireplaces, garages and large yards. Two of the three have central air conditioning.

On a recent day, two red foxes sat under an expansive rear deck, fleeing back into the park when a rare human visitor startled them.

"We see that all the time," along with deer and a chipmunk, said Katherine McTague, who said she is in her 70s and has lived with her husband in an owner-occupied home closest to the park entrance since 1992. "My husband's family has lived here since 1954," she said.

The traffic noise from busy Route 108, also known as Clarksville Pike, does not bother her. "You get used to it," she said, and she has no plans to move.

"We're elderly. We don't really want to go anywhere," she said.

Public Works Director James M. Irvin said it will be several years before the widening project is completed, and county recreation officials said it would take years to plan park improvements that might force demolition of the homes.

Arthur said, "It's in the Centennial school district," which is one of the most sought after in the county's highly regarded system. And although the houses are older, "they are well-kept, and the county did repairs and painted where needed," Arthur said.

The department is seeking "what the market will bear," Arthur said. The rent money would be a tiny slice of the $13.5 million the department raises annually toward its $30 million budget.

The homes were purchased from owners who wanted to sell and move, and all three have remained empty since late last year, while the county repaired roofs, replaced windows, painted and cleaned the properties.

A fourth county-owned home next to the other three has been leased for the past several years, for $1,000 a month.

The largest house, described as a "split-foyer," sits on 1.43 acres and has 2,036 square feet on one floor, including three bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen and breakfast room. The family room has two sliding glass doors and a bay window that opens onto a large deck facing the rear yard and woods. An addition over the two-car garage houses a family room, den, half-bath and formal dining room. A lower level has 1,285 square feet, which is virtually a second apartment with a full kitchen, living room, den, bedroom and full bath plus a laundry room.

The other two houses are two-level ranch-style homes that are not quite as large, though one sits on a 2.35-acre lot that the tenant must maintain. One has four bedrooms and the other three, and both have garages.

Jenna Polvka, an agent with Creig Northrop's Long and Foster agency, is leasing the county's homes.

"These rents are more or less comparable to other homes rented in the Ellicott City area," she said, adding that the county government is a "very good landlord."

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