Frederick Growth Squeezing Residents Out of County

James Jennings, with real estate agent Ellie Kirsch, is selling his Frederick home because he says it has become too expensive -- a common refrain in the area.
James Jennings, with real estate agent Ellie Kirsch, is selling his Frederick home because he says it has become too expensive -- a common refrain in the area. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

The "For Sale" sign is planted on James S. Jennings's front lawn like a white flag of surrender.

Jennings doesn't want to move from Tasker's Chance, a housing development in the city of Frederick that is so new there are almost no trees to block his picturesque views of the Catoctin Mountains. But he says he cannot afford to live in Frederick County anymore. Rising taxes on his $255,327 ranch-style home have collided with the reality of a fixed income.

What really amazes him is this: He is relatively well off. If a guy like Jennings, a retired federal employee with decent health insurance, feels compelled to move, what does that say for less fortunate retirees or young police officers, teachers and firefighters?

"I am not the only person in this situation, not by a jugful," said Jennings, 73. "I'm doing better than a lot of people in this county."

Frederick County's growth in recent years has been fueled by newcomers who escaped the high cost of housing in Washington's inner suburbs. Now, the former dairy farming center is becoming more pricey, as transplants from neighboring Montgomery County slowly make it like the place they sought to leave behind.

A recent report by the Frederick County Affordable Housing Council, which is appointed by county and city governments, found that the number of homes is increasing, but the percentage of homes the average family can afford is falling.

In 2000, a family that lived on $60,256 a year might have been able to afford 42 percent of the homes in Frederick County; today, after adjusting incomes for inflation, only about 16 percent of the homes would be in that family's price range.

Many of those who choose to live in Frederick County now complain more loudly about the cost of buying a home or rising property taxes. With less disposable income, some have taken their lifestyles down a notch or, like Jennings, made plans to move somewhere cheaper.

The issue hasn't escaped the attention of elected officials -- including the Frederick Board of County Commissioners, whose five members are up for reelection.

"There seems to be universal acceptance that there is indeed a problem. That's a milestone," said James Upchurch, president of the nonprofit Interfaith Housing Alliance, which helps providing housing for low-income people.

What troubles Upchurch and others, he said, is that the folks who are leaving are too often the people communities need most, such as firefighters, police officers and teachers.

The Frederick County Public Schools district pays $36,351 for a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree. But even seasoned, better-paid educators recruited by the county have spurned offers to transfer because of the housing market.

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