- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

Prince George's County, Md., is emerging as a housing hot spot, outpacing the rest of the Washington area in home sales last year.
The county's home sales grew 17.4 percent faster than sales in Northern Virginia, which had a 6.4 percent increase; Montgomery County, with a 4.8 percent rise; and the District, where sales slipped 0.10 percent according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems (MRIS), which tracks residential real estate sales.
"It's good to see people are finally seeing what we see, which is that Prince George's is a wonderful place to live," said County Council member Peter Shapiro, Brentwood Democrat.
The county's affordable housing, despite limited availability of units, is drawing home buyers to the jurisdiction, which has long been considered the stepchild of the Washington area.
"I can only assume that with the upturns and downturns in the economy and with the more-affording housing stock in Prince George's County, especially when you combine affordability with a pretty high quality of life, it becomes a more attractive option," Mr. Shapiro said.
Although housing prices are climbing, Prince George's County is still affordable, compared with the rest of the region.
The median price of homes sold in the county last year rose 3.7 percent to $140,000, according to MRIS. By comparison, the median price tag in neighboring Montgomery County was $215,000; in Northern Virginia, it was $237,000.
That discrepancy has led many price-conscious consumers to move to Prince George's.
"Most of Prince George's County is pretty chaotic, in that there's a significant shortage of inventory," said Boyd Campbell, owner of the Century 21 Home Center franchise in Lanham. "Basically, if properties are priced appropriately and show fairly well, we're getting multiple offers on them."
The most popular areas are Bowie, Greenbelt, Laurel, Upper Marlboro, Hyattsville and Cheverly, real-estate agents said.
January sales were up by more than 200 percent, compared with the same month a year ago.
"People are wanting to stay near the Beltway and something that is affordable," said Connie Stommel, with Re/Max 100 Real Estate in Camp Springs, adding that she has never seen the county's housing market so robust.
"It's brisk and so tight that it's wonderful for the sellers and very frustrating for the buyers," she said. "It's forcing people into making quicker decisions than what they feel comfortable with. But we just do not have enough inventory out there to have a client sit and think on it for a week because the property will be gone."
Mrs. Stommel said her sales almost doubled to $16 million from $9 million in 2000.
Art Greene from Long & Foster Real Estate in Fort Washington said he is increasingly running into buyers who begin by looking for a home in Montgomery County or Northern Virginia, but quickly realize they can't afford the areas, so they turn to Prince George's.
"Affordable housing is a major factor," Mr. Greene said. "We just have comparable properties that have better prices."
Another factor helping the county, which has the nation's most affluent black population, is the improvements and additions it has seen in recent years. Among them is FedEx Field, new schools (with more on the way), and a proposal to build a large hotel and conference center at National Harbor.
County Executive Wayne K. Curry, who has long pushed for more luxury homes in the county, proposed two weeks ago to sell 6,400 acres of public land for waterfront homes on the Patuxent River.
But the county continues to have troubles. For instance, some of its neighborhoods that border the District are still beset with poverty and crime. The homicide rate jumped 65 percent in 2001, after dropping throughout the 1990s.
The public school system has had trouble for years, with the state threatening to take over. The most recent problem is the state-county fight over the tenure of schools Superintendent Iris T. Metts.
The county's police department is also in disarray, having recently become the target of a federal investigation over accusations of brutality and other misconduct. The police chief resigned a month ago.
Added to this are continued complaints from residents about the minimal shopping and entertainment outlets in the county.
But the situation is showing signs of improvement, with the Bowie Town Center opening last fall bringing shopping, entertainment and dining to the county.
Safeway opened its largest Eastern Division store a 65,900-square-foot facility that is about 2,000 square feet larger than the state's second-largest Safeway in Eldersburg in the center. The store contains a Starbucks coffee shop, a dry cleaner, a bank and a pharmacy.
"We felt that with whatever growth was expected in the county, it can certainly support a store," said Craig Muckle, spokesman for the supermarket chain.
Mr. Muckle, who bought a house in Bowie in 1998, said there were no nearby stores before the center opened.
"It was very frustrating to live in the county and have to go to Montgomery County or Annapolis to shop," he said, echoing the sentiment of many Prince George's residents. "So I was very pleased when the Bowie Town Center opened."
When Mr. Muckle and his wife, then fiancee, first sought a home four years ago, they looked in Montgomery County, where they had been renting. But they crossed the county line "because the house we have now we couldn't have gotten in Montgomery County for the amount of money we paid."
The next few months will bring even more economic development to Bowie, as Best Buy and DuClaw Brew Pub prepare to open at the center on Route 197.
"We generally associate the quality of life with the amount of shopping possibilities and entertainment venues in close proximity," said Anirban Basu, an economist for RESI, the economic-consulting arm of Towson University. "So the question is, are the county's efforts paying off, or are the [new homeowners] bringing economic development?"
Either way, he said, the county has been successful in attracting new population.
"It's hard to emerge as a big story when you share a region with Fairfax and Montgomery County," Mr. Basu said. "But Prince George's is one of the largest jurisdictions in Maryland and a national success story, because it's a majority-minority county, and yet it's relatively affluent."


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