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This week in Columbia history: Overnight campouts became common in scramble for housing

William Abel only planned to stop by the Howard Homes office for a few minutes on Aug. 10, 1973, to ask when the townhouses he'd had an eye on in a new, unfinished Columbia development would be up for sale.

"Are you here to buy the new houses in Greenleaf?" a woman asked as he walked through the door. "You're number 47 on the list."

Taken aback, Abel and his then-wife entered the company's model home next door to discover that dozens of hopeful buyers, mostly young couples like them, were camped out there, waiting to be the first to snap up the 193 houses being put up for sale at 10 a.m. the next day. The earliest waited there up to 40 hours.

Howard Homes president Lee Rosenberg told The Baltimore Sun in 1973 that the line-up was the second of its kind in recent years. It would not be the last. As late as 1979, newspapers were reporting people camping outside Howard Homes offices to snag townhouses before they had even been built.

A townhouse in 1973 cost between $29,000 and $35,000 — or around $157,000 to $190,000 in today's dollars, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Howard Homes townhouses' affordability, and their location in the new planned community of Columbia put them in high demand, making them the only option for many who wanted to own property in Columbia in its early years.

"There were some rentals in Howard County, but there wasn't anything else for sale," said Karen Everhart, a Realtor who has worked and lived in Columbia since its first year, in 1967.

The "little, tiny townhouses," Everhart said, combined with the new, experimental town, attracted primarily young couples looking for their first home and "willing to take a chance."

Abel, who was 29 when he purchased his house on Overheart Lane in Owen Brown Village, remembered the community as youthful and vibrant. He described walking into the model home that day, seeing his neighbors and realizing what kind of neighborhood it would be.

"I saw one of our future neighbors breastfeeding a child," Abel said. "And I said to my wife, 'This is gonna be a wonderful neighborhood!'"

It lived up to his expectations. "Out of eight houses on Overheart Lane, six of them had pianos," he said. "It wasn't your run-of-the-mill neighborhood."

Everhart said the enthusiasm buyers showed for the Howard Homes developments matched the real estate climate in Columbia's early years; even the renters in Bryant Gardens, Columbia's first apartment complex, which Everhart managed in the 1970s, were excited.

"It was like we were giving away gold," Everhart said. "Everybody was so positive, and so exciting."

Waiting to buy houses, she said, was "sort of like a big party" for the young couples. "Nobody thought 'Oh no, I have to do this.' They chose to do it."

One couple told the Sun in 1973 that the wait was like a "commune," saying, "We've had a marvelous time, sharing food and drinks and playing cards."

Abel and his wife spent the night in the model home with about 75 other people, he said. He and his wife slept in the laundry room.

Someone took roll call every two hours, with a break between midnight and 6 a.m. If a couple was not present for roll call, they would be dropped from the list. Only one person left, the Sun reported.

Abel spent one night waiting for his townhouse. Others spent two. In 1979, the Washington Post reported that people waited to buy houses — also not yet built — for five days, arriving in tents, vans and station wagons.

Though Abel purchased his house sight unseen and watched Howard Homes build it from what had been "just dirt," he said it did not feel like a risk — and turned out to be a great decision.

"They were very nice houses, we were tickled to death with those," Abel said. "That was like a dream house compared to some of the horror stories you hear today."

After six happy years living in the house, Abel said, they sold it in less than two weeks for about double what they had bought it for. "We walked away with a check for $30,000. Where in the hell can you get an investment like that anywhere?"

The buzz around brand-new Columbia, said Everhart, is what made the tiny townhouses so special.

"The opportunity to live and work in a new city — that just doesn't happen in America anymore," Everhart said. "Everybody was so excited about that."

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