If this summer brought a surprise storm, it would be quicker for many Howard County road workers to tackle the mess in Frederick, Baltimore or Carroll counties rather than get to their Howard posts, officials say.
With home values surging, local government workers increasingly must travel long distances to get to work because they cannot afford to buy a house in Howard, where the average price of a detached dwelling could approach a half-million dollars this year.
"Affordable housing is a big problem for our membership," said Dale Chase, president of the Howard County Public Employees Local 3085, which includes recreation and parks employees, road crews and animal control workers. "We think workers should be a part of the community in which they work."
Chase, who lives in Carroll County, estimates that less than 10 percent of the union's 270 employees live in Howard.
County leaders, recognizing their employees' frustrations over housing prices, are exploring ways to reward workers by giving them a chance -- albeit a small one -- to afford a house in Howard.
The County Council is considering a bill that would give the county's career employees, who on average make $47,500 annually, preferred status on moderate-income housing that's a requirement for new developments in high density areas, such as the Route 1 corridor.
Yet, with thousands of other non-government workers also priced out of the local real estate market, some housing advocates are conflicted about the policy of giving special treatment to some groups.
"Certainly it would seem the notion of helping public employees, which are not the best paid folks, is laudable, but at the same time the hope is they would also be looking at the broader market and ways to help lots of home buyers beyond their base," said Kent Marcoux, executive director of Faith Fund, a Baltimore-based financial institution that assists low- and moderate-income housing development.
The bill before the council, which received a first hearing this week, complements a measure approved in February that extends preferential treatment to police officers, firefighters and teachers when moderate-income housing is available.
"When we need them to plow our roads at midnight, it makes a lot more sense that they are not driving from Frederick County to do that job," said council member Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County), who introduced the bill.
Earlier this year, the council approved new zoning regulations that require developers that build condominiums, townhouses or clustered housing to reserve 10 to 15 percent of the units for sale or rent to moderate-income people. Those properties would be sold at discounted prices to buyers who make less than 80 percent of the Baltimore metropolitan area's median income, which is $68,300.
Leonard Vaughan, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, said the moderate-priced houses are basically the same as the market-rate units, except they might not have "all the extra amenities," such as upgraded countertops and more expensive carpeting.
A lottery is used to award the properties, which are sold for about half the market value, after a pool of eligible applicants is identified.
The first 10 moderate-priced units were sold recently in Scaggsville after the buyers were selected from 120 people who qualified for the lottery, Vaughan said. County workers approved earlier this year by the County Council will receive preferential treatment in the next lottery, planned for late summer.
The approximately 100 new units of affordable housing that could result each year from the new zoning requirements is far less than what's needed in a county where housing prices still are climbing steeply, officials said.
As of fall, the Department of Planning and Zoning estimated the average price of all housing units, including condominiums and townhouses, in Howard County was $300,000. The average price of a detached dwelling was $400,000 last fall. Marsha L. McLaughlin, director of the planning department, said she expects it to approach $500,000 by year's end. Howard's median household income of $85,150 is Maryland's highest.
"You have a lot of service workers important to the economy of Howard County [who] are not bringing in the kind of income necessary to buy a house," McLaughlin said.
Chase said a growing number of members of his union are moving to southern Pennsylvania, where they trade commutes as long as 90 minutes each way for a $150,000 house with a yard.
State employees who work in Howard say they, too, are not able to buy a house here.
"I would say 90 percent of us live outside of Howard County," said LaTonya Mountain, an income maintenance specialist for the Howard County Department of Social Services, which is operated by the state and county.
Other counties are grappling with how to assure affordable, close-in housing for their employees. A task force in Anne Arundel County recently recommended the construction of "workforce housing," a concept Chase said Howard also should explore. McLaughlin said the county should consider turning existing units, which typically cost far less than new construction, into affordable housing.
The dominant trend in Howard, said Marcoux of Faith Fund, is toward an ever more exclusionary real estate market.
"To buy a house in Howard, you could be saving a percentage of your salary, but if the home values increase at four times inflation, you will never catch up," he said.