Census data show rise in Frederick Co. housing vacancies

By Bethany Rodgers

Saturday - 5/28/2011, 12:11pm EDT

WALKERSVILLE -- Helen Eaves watches prospective buyers come and go from a neighboring house that is for sale, but although she's heard it is beautiful and freshly renovated, it has stayed vacant for months.

From the front porch of the home where she has lived for more than six decades, Eaves said she's seen several houses emptied of occupants in recent years because of foreclosure and deaths of longtime residents.

She has concerns about another empty house that isn't selling.

"It needs someone to keep it up," she said.

U.S. Census figures released Thursday show walls are bare and cupboards empty not only in many Walkersville homes, but also in residences across Frederick County.

The number of vacant homes in the county jumped by about 80 percent during the past 10 years, increasing from 2,957 units in 2000 to 5,336 last year, the data show. Those numbers mean that 4 percent of housing units in Frederick County were empty in 2000, while 5.9 percent were reportedly vacant a decade later, according to the census.

A rise in distress sales has a lot to do with the increased number of empty homes in the area, said Steve Fox, a Realtor and member of the Frederick Affordable Housing Council.

"I think that's a big factor that's hurting some communities," Fox said.

The upward trend in vacancies has affected most areas of the county, according to the data.

In Frederick, the number of vacant housing units soared from 1,215 in 2000 to 2,207 last year, while Ballenger Creek's vacancies went from 234 to 440. The number of empty units in Walkersville more than doubled, rising from 43 in 2000 to 112 a decade later.

While Fox and others involved with real estate in Frederick County pointed to the foreclosure crisis as a major factor in the rise, statistics show rental vacancy rates have increased alongside of homeowner vacancy rates.

The percentage of Frederick County rental homes that are vacant rose from 5.2 in 2000 to 6.7 in 2010, according to census numbers.

Renting in Frederick County became more expensive in the past decade, said Jennifer Short, director of housing and community development in the county.

Paying fair market rent and utilities for an area two-bedroom apartment, without giving more than 30 percent of income to housing, requires an hourly wage of $28.73, she said.

That is a 64 percent increase since 2000, she said, referring to statistics from a 2010 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Still, the news isn't all bad.

"The rental market has kind of stabilized, even though it stabilized at a high amount," she said.

Although the county's vacancy levels have risen since 2000, they still trail the Maryland and nationwide rates. Census data show that 9.3 percent of housing units are empty across the state, while 11.4 percent are vacant nationwide. The closeness of the federal government helps buoy the housing market in Frederick County, said Buzz Mackintosh, general manager and co-owner of a local real estate agency.

"Frederick is holding its own. For our area in general, we're in really good shape because the government has infused so much money" into the region, Mackintosh said.

And Sandy Fouche, president of the Frederick County Association of Realtors, said she believes the housing market is rebounding. About three years ago, a 12-month supply of housing was stacked up on the county's real estate market, she said. Now there's only a six-month supply, meaning at the current sales rate of about 200 homes per month, there are about six months worth of inventory on the market.

But Short believes the upswing might be farther down the road.

"It's going to be a while longer. I've heard another wave of foreclosures is coming. The market is starting to show some movement, but we have a ways to go," she said.

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