Sunday, April 09, 2006

A housing parable...

ATTENTION: This is an extremely long and somewhat personal blog post. It is by far the longest yet and the one post that took me the longest to write. I know it’s not easy to read long stuff on a blog, but since I don’t have any other medium, this is what I have to use. Copy and paste it into Word if that helps. Or, you can always just scroll past it – I promise I won’t be offended.

We’ve been over the fact that I have a tendency to write about my personal life on this blog. I try to stick with Howard County stuff, but since one of my main motivations for starting this was to make myself a better writer, any practice is helpful. What’s more, anecdotes are a good way to convey a message and -- though I am a strong believer in backing up claims with real data -- sometimes can be used to make inferences about broader topics, such as Howard County.

So why the preface/disclaimer? I’m going to talk about something that is both personal and potentially revealing. Revealing in the sense that if you know me but don’t know I’m Hayduke, chances are you’ll make the connection after reading this (if not, you’re sure to find out soon enough). This will also explain where I was during the well-attended (by bloggers, at least) candidate forum last Wednesday.

April 5, 2006 was a pretty big day in the Hayduke household. It involved one of those “big steps” in life -- a suburbanite’s rite of passage, like graduating from high school, getting married or buying your first house, which is what we did.

Affordable Housing? But how?

The housing market in Howard County has gone gangbusters over the last five years. And for a young married couple with negative wealth (student loans) and earning, uh, less than Howard County median household income, finding an affordable house is not easy. But, if you read the papers or talk to just about anyone, you probably already know that. You probably also know that creating more affordable housing in this county has become a priority for many, including me.

Though support for affordable housing is strong, there is little consensus about how it should be created. Some say we need to force developers to provide it by setting aside a certain percentage of all the new houses they build for buyers in predetermined income brackets. This method, known as inclusionary zoning, is pretty popular in the affordable housing world, but I’m not completely sold on its ability to make a significant dent in the overall need.

Others say we need more publicly financed affordable housing, which in order to make a real impact would seriously tax our local government’s resources. By all means, however, lobby the Feds to throw more money at housing.

Still more claim that we should focus on building a wider range of housing, so options are available and affordable for everyone, regardless of their income bracket. This is the approach I am most supportive of, and not surprisingly, it was the same approach used by Jim Rouse when he built Columbia.

And, yet again, I have Jim Rouse to thank for making my life better. But first, some more background.

The Long and Winding Road

The path we took to purchasing our home seemed, for a time, endless. Abbzug and I were in the market for a house for a long while, but considering our financial position, “in” the market might not be the best description. More appropriately, we watched housing prices spiral upwards for a few years, losing a little bit of hope with each new day.

Renewing the lease on our apartment last year was a concession, of sorts – a personal admission that either we’ll be stuck renting in Howard County – where we’ve both lived for more than half our lives and where we both consider we “grew up” – or be forced to move somewhere else, which neither of us really wanted to do for the obvious reason that Howard County, or more specifically, Columbia, is The Greatest Place on Earth. Well, it’s at least one of them. Also, this blog is about Howard County, and it would be pretty lame to write about a county that I don’t live in, right?

Maybe our standards were too high, though. Certainly, we could find something, right? A condo, perhaps? An older house that needed some TLC? Although the prices of both were not really in our budget, there were other reasons we didn’t go for one. Perfect for some, condos were pretty much out of the question for us because, well, we’re products of the suburbs. It’s hard wired into our very existence to have a garden/yard, and we both are fond of our privacy – in case you couldn’t tell. Moreover, we’re both pretty handy and enjoy the work involved in maintaining a home. And finally, there’s the dog, who has grown weary of only having a small balcony on which to enjoy the outdoors. Since we’ll always have a biggish dog – another one of those hard wired things – having a yard, even a small one, is essential.

As for older houses, we looked at a bunch online but only one in person. The only one we could reasonably afford, the older house we toured was built in 1813, had a shower with 5 foot ceilings, and was in need of significant work, much of which we couldn’t do on our own and couldn’t afford to pay someone else to do.

Our rental concession notwithstanding, Abbzug still spent the bulk of her free time over the last few years trolling the websites of realtors, an exercise that was at once informative and discouraging. We also had realtor friends who kept an eye out for us, but to no avail. In short, we knew what was out there and none of it was for us.

The problem, however, was that we were going about it the wrong way. The free market clearly wasn’t for us. But what if we left the market out of it?

Dumb Luck, Divine Intervention or Part of the Plan?

How about all three? Dumb luck presented us with an opportunity to buy a house that met our “high” standards at a discounted price; discounted because the sellers are people we know, and realtors, who I have nothing against, were thankfully left out of the equation entirely. Fate – or rather my employer – also played a role in making all the numbers work – a raise came through at the most perfect of times.

But how was it part of the plan? Enter the vision of Jim Rouse.

Rouse, as most of us know, planned Columbia as a place where everybody could live. He built single-family homes, townhouses, apartments, condos, duplexes and anything else that would serve his goals of creating a diverse community, one where ZIP codes didn’t determine who lived where. While offering a range of different housing types was essential to realizing this vision, equally important was providing an array of sizes. As made clear above, Abbzug and I wanted the suburban dream (still more on that later), a single-family house. Size was, for the most part, irrelevant – it’s just the two of us and the dog (for a couple years, anyway).

It used to be there were housing options known as starter homes. Maybe you’ve heard of these relics. As is pretty clear from the name, they were designed for people like Abbzug and I and as such, are small, inexpensive and offer the chance for first-time buyers to build some equity and learn the ropes of homeownership. Sadly, they’ve gone out of favor, as developers focus on building bigger and bigger houses, regardless of type (see: 3000 square foot townhouses). Of course, developers aren’t entirely to blame, our zoning system makes it difficult to build – much less turn a profit on – small houses on small lots. Fear of density, I suppose.

Anyway, because Rouse wrote the zoning for Columbia, he could pretty much do what he wanted. Which he did when he built the neighborhood I’m moving into – the same one my parents almost moved into when they were at the same stage in life that I’m at now. Our section of Oakland Mills (that’s right, I’m coming to your neck of the woods, OMers) is comprised of small, contemporary, but not flashy, houses. Some of the models are larger and many folks have expanded, but the house Abbzug and I purchased is smaller than our apartment, a perfect-for-us 850 square feet, give or take a few, with two bedrooms and one bath. In short, it is the elusive, extinct starter house.

The idea that first time homebuyers need thousands of square feet of living space strikes me as completely misguided and the source of so much of our struggles in making housing more affordable in Howard County. The affordable housing programs we have in place require developers to build their reduced-price houses to almost the exact specifications, including size, of their market rate units. But this is the same program that developers claim is killing their profits and that the rest of us claim, rightly, is barely making a dent in the need. The new proposed affordable housing bill (I think) even spells out rather large minimum sizes for the reduced-rate units.

So, we press on but make no progress, and those who can’t afford housing and aren’t lucky enough to have their name drawn from the hat to buy one of these few reduced-price houses are left out.

“It’s not profitable.” “Density is unacceptable.” “We can’t change the zoning.” “We’re out of land.” Hogwash.

Do you want more affordable housing? Do you want places for young professionals, teachers, fire fighters, service workers, and the next generation to live? Do you want to extend the benefits of homeownership to as many people as possible? Do you want a county that includes rather than excludes? Well, then it’s time to stop rearranging deck chairs and start building more, and more truly diverse, houses in more appropriate locations (read: not the rural west).

Jim Rouse was onto something – something that was later tainted by those who replaced him. (You don’t see any starter houses in the newer villages. Trust me, I looked.) Why have we yet to learn what he knew over forty years ago? Why have we failed to see that what worked in the past – at least until Columbia approached build-out and development came to a halt in the county – is the same approach we should be using now? My story alone isn’t proof enough. But it is something, and I guarantee you, it is not unique. It was, after all, part of the plan, with a little luck and fate thrown in. But it’s time fate threw us – well, Abbzug – something more than just monkey wrenches.

What Really Matters?

In every life, there should be balance. Good things happen, bad things happen, and we just deal with it and move on. It’s all you can do, I suppose. There is no one who has not endured difficulties, regardless of who they are, where they’re from, or how much they make. Comparing one person’s trials with another’s is, at best, foolhardy. But we still do it.

At the risk of providing too much information or being too foolhardy, I’ll just say that Abbzug’s been through her share of life’s trials. Only through her astounding personal strength has she been able to cope and persevere. Someone like me would have given up long ago. It is a testament to my good looks and tremendous sense of humor that she bothered marrying someone as weak-willed as me. I thank her daily for this.

Buying this house meant more to Abbzug than I could possibly express on a blog. Despite the constant letdown of the Homes For Sale section of the classifieds, she pressed on, taking what we had and what we hoped (and a little bit of good luck…for once) and making it reality.

My debt to her will surely outlast our debt to the mortgage people. Never, however, have I been so happy to owe so much.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the Club of the happy and deeply in debt homeowners.

hocoblog said...

Congratulations

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