Many factors are affecting area housing

February 26, 2005|BY TARA REILLY


Families trying to rent a place in Washington County these days will have to come up with about $800 to $900 a month for a place to live, about a $100 increase in rent over the last five years.

As the cost of housing continues to rise, Richard Willson, executive director of the Housing Authority of Washington County, said it's becoming common for county natives who work here to live in West Virginia or Pennsylvania because of lower housing costs.

He said an influx of residents from the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas to Washington County is making it hard for those with lower-paying jobs to continue living here.


"People with better jobs down the road are now in our housing market and driving up the costs," Willson said. "It makes it tough for people that are in our work force."

According to the real estate tracker Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., the average sale price of a home in Washington County in January was $206,948, up from the average sale price of $175,207 during the same time last year.

Of the 137 two-, three- and four-bedroom homes that were sold in January, just 23 sold for less than $100,000, according to the tracker.

The average sale price of a house in the city of Hagerstown from July 2004 to December 2004 was $158,018, said Barbara Spielman, housing adviser for the Hagerstown Home Store, which provides free information to those trying to buy a house.

"That's gone up significantly ..." Spielman said.

About five years ago, the average sale price of a house within city limits was less than $100,000, she said.

"A lot of our clients are being priced out of Washington County," Spielman said.

The median household income in Washington County is $45,550, while the per capita income is $27,052, according to the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission's Web site.

While residential property assessments are expected to rise by 35.7 percent over the next three years, a state official said it's hard to pinpoint a reason why.

Tim O'Rourke, supervisor of assessments for the state's Department of Taxation and Assessments office in Washington County, said the office doesn't track what is driving up the price of homes. He said low interest rates probably are a factor.

"Pretty much the whole country is experiencing the same thing we are," O'Rourke said. "Most of the state of Maryland is."

Washington County Commissioner John C. Munson said the commissioners have contributed to the rising cost of housing by approving new building fees and taxes. The commissioners said they approved those charges to generate money for school construction projects and road improvements as a result of growth.

Munson also said the cost of building materials has increased, which adds to the rising home prices.

"Honestly, I don't know what we can do," Munson said.

He said the commissioners might want to consider reducing the county's excise or transfer taxes for those with low incomes.

"I don't know how fair that is to everybody else, or I don't know how receptive they would be," Munson said.

Willson said higher home prices drive up rent prices.

He fears that trend will continue and that rent in Washington County will end up being similar to Frederick County, Md., where families pay $1,200 or more a month for three- and four-bedroom houses, he said.

"That's enough to scare you," Willson said.

Willson and Spielman said that if prices continue to rise, Washington County primarily will become a commuter society - a place where people with higher incomes can afford to live while they commute to work in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas.

At the same time, families who work in the county and earn lower salaries would find it more difficult to afford to live here, they said.

Willson said a commuter society also can have negative effects on the community because it forces residents to spend hours traveling to and from work every day, time they could be spending at church functions or volunteering.

"Your quality of community life tends to go down when you have a commuter population," Willson said.

The commissioners plan to form a task force to study the affordable housing issue, one of the goals they set for 2005.

"I applaud the commissioners for putting the issue out there for study," Willson said. "It's a good move on their part."

Willson said the county probably could look at what other counties have done to keep housing at affordable prices.

Montgomery County, Md., has in place a Moderately Priced Housing Program, which has been used as a model across the country, Willson said.

Under that program, builders are given bonus densities if they construct a certain amount of dwelling units that are affordable to moderate-income households, according to Montgomery County's Web site.

The Washington County Planning Commission discussed the task force at a recent workshop and plan to ask the County Commissioners for representation on that board.

"The property values in this county are just skyrocketing," Planning Commission member George Anikis said. "I think we're all concerned about it and something's got to be done."

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