Howard County is trying to turn a foreclosed town house development into public housing, but first it may have to spend $45,000 to remove microwave ovens, garbage disposals and other amenities because some federal officials consider them too luxurious for such housing.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development may not give Howard County the money it needs to buy and operate the complex unless the county removes several items that many people would consider to be standard equipment in a new home, a county spokesman said.

Most of the 24 Ellicott City town houses in question were from 50 percent to 60 percent complete when the developer defaulted on the mortgage last summer. With construction so far along, many of the homes already had whirlpool tubs, dishwashers, microwave ovens, garbage disposals and refrigerators with ice-making units installed in them.

Howard officials are negotiating with HUD, hoping for approval of a county proposal to let most of the amenities stay, at least until they break down or wear out, said Rochell Brown Jr., Howard's community development administrator.

HUD's Baltimore office and its Philadelphia regional office have sent conflicting signals on Howard County's proposal.

In a memo sent to the county earlier this year, the Baltimore office said most of the amenities would have to go. Fireplaces and metal chimney stacks also should be removed and the refrigerators replaced by models without ice makers, HUD said in a list of required work sent to Howard County's Office of Housing and Community Development.

But this week, a HUD official in the Philadelphia regional office said Howard County would not have to get rid of amenities if removing them added to the county's costs. HUD's chief concern is whether the project will cost too much, said Harry W. Staller, deputy regional administrator in the Philadelphia office.

"The danger is that the costs could make the project economically infeasible," he said.

The purchase price of the town house complex, called Allfa Pines, is $1.7 million, and county officials estimate it will cost another $500,000 to complete construction if the work is done according to the instructions from HUD's Baltimore office.

City and county governments nationwide buy and develop public housing with HUD grants and receive federal subsidies to cover the difference between what it costs to operate the housing and how much rent tenants can afford to pay. In return, HUD requires local governments to comply with federal regulations intended to limit costs.

The current cost cap on building or acquiring public housing in Howard County is $102,000 per four-bedroom unit, Staller said. The caps are based on a locality's land and construction costs. The county's cost estimates for its proposed project fall within these limits.

But Staller said HUD cannot make a decision on funding the purchase and operation of the complex until the agency makes an "economic feasibility study." What action the department takes is "not a question of taking amenities in or out," but of whether the project "fits within the cost constraints of public housing." The county could be asked to remove some items not usually found in public housing if the cost of the items "puts the project in jeopardy," he said.

Brown said Howard County would cover the difference between the grant from HUD and the total cost of buying and completing the development, Brown said.

The county has an option to buy the complex from a developer who purchased the complex at the foreclosure sale. Brown said he doesn't mind plugging up the jets in the whirlpool tubs and covering the fireplaces with drywall, but "there are some things we're going to fight." He believes people moving into complex should be able to use the appliances that are already there.

The cost of meeting HUD regulations will be higher than leaving the equipment in place in many cases, county housing workers estimate. Cabinets already installed in most units are not sturdy enough to meet HUD requirements, but it would cost $25,000 to replace them, they said.

"Our position is that the cabinets are in place," Brown said. "It's my property. I don't want to throw them away."

Plans call for turning the 2 1/2-bath, two-bedroom homes into four-bedroom units by converting a recreation room and the small office attached to the front of each house into bedrooms, Brown said. A parking lot behind one row of houses will to converted to a playground, to supplement other play areas nearby.

Brown said he doesn't want to keep the fireplaces in operating condition because "they're nice for romance, but not really good at producing heat."

But he disagrees with HUD's solution. It would cost more than $300 to remove a fireplace and flue stack, repair and replace the roof and shingles that are damaged, as HUD wants, but only $100 to cover over the fireplace with drywall.

The whirlpool tubs have been installed in all the units, but the pumps and electrical service are not hooked up, Brown said. "My position is, let's plug the holes and let it just be a tub."

The county and HUD are still negotiating about the tubs, and Howard officials must put together a proposal that estimates the cost of each alternative: replacing the tubs or leaving the current ones and and sealing off the outlets, pumps and wiring.

Dishwashers haven't been installed in all the units, but talks are continuing between Howard and HUD as to whether to pull out the ones already installed. The alternative is to leave them in the units, with a notice to tenants that the dishwashers will not be repaired or replaced when they break down.

Brown wants to keep the garbage disposals because they keep people from putting wet garbage in cans, where the trash spills out and costs more to carry away than the disposals cost to operate, he said. HUD, however, is worried about its liability if someone is injured by a disposal.

The neighborhood around the development is ideal, Brown said. There are other town house complexes nearby as well as shops, grocery stores, small businesses, public transportation and day care, he said.

Howard County already provides nearly 200 housing units for low- and moderate-income residents but does not have a public housing agency. The county is establishing an authority and expects to have it in place by the fall. Brown said he hopes to reach an agreement with HUD on acquiring Allfa Pines by the time the housing authority is ready to assume control of the complex.

Other local housing agencies have also battled with HUD over housing features the department considers too luxurious or expensive for public housing.

"HUD has some severe hangups about amenities," said Angus T. Olson, executive director of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority. "We once had to appear before a HUD technical review panel to ask to spend our own money to enhance our own units."

The Alexandria agency believes in "social and economic mixing in communities," Olson said. The housing authority recently spent $815,000 to put washers, dryers and air conditioners in 30 town houses and to cover the difference between HUD's contribution and the actual cost of developing the units.

In another development, where the agency had to buy the land, Alexandria's cost for washers, dryers, miniblinds and a few other amenities, as well as the land for the project, totaled $3 million, Olson said.

Although many public housing agencies do not have enough money to put in extras the federal government will not pay for, some authorities have a housing finance arm and can use their own funds.

"Our agency believes that washers and dryers are a necessity," and is prepared to pay for them, said Patrick Maier, assistant director of development for the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission. "The mind-set that the poor don't deserve {amenities} is really unfortunate and something HUD should be getting over."

Foreclosed property sold by the Resolution Trust Corp., created by Congress to clean up the thrift industry, must meet many of the same guidelines applied to public housing, said Muriel T. Watkins, the RTC's low-income housing program coordinator.

Many of the foreclosed apartment buildings the RTC hopes to sell to low-income housing groups were originally built as luxury condominiums or rental units with many of the appliances HUD will not finance, raising the question of whether buyers can get government-insured financing, she said.

But "we will not go in and take out those benefits," Watkins said. "These are benefits to low- and moderate-income families made possible by the economics of the market."

The RTC is just beginning to put its multifamily buildings up for sale, and may have to "go back and revisit this issue" with HUD, Watkins said.