A recent nationwide study called Priced Out in 2010 identified Columbia as the single least affordable rental market in the country for those with severe disabilities who rely on Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a federal assistance program for people with disabilities.
The study, conducted by the Technical Assistance Collaborative and the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Housing Task Force, is funded every two years by the Melville Charitable Trust. It compares "fair market rents," as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), with the SSI of people with disabilities nationwide.
While SSI in Maryland amounted to $674 a month in 2010, average rent for a "modest, one-bedroom apartment" in Columbia was more than $1,400 a month, the study found, making average rent in Columbia equal to 209 percent of the income of a person receiving SSI.
Columbia is one of only three markets in the country where average rent for a one-bedroom is more than 200 percent of SSI, the study found; the second and third were Honolulu and Maui, at 207and 206 percent respectively.
Donna Wells, head of the county's Core Service Agency, the local authority responsible for mental health services, said housing for people with mental disabilities is extremely difficult to find and affordability is her agency's "biggest stumbling block."
Only three states and Washington, D.C., have overall rent averages above 150 percent of SSI: Hawaii, at 198 percent; D.C., at 191 percent; Maryland, at 164 percent; and New Jersey, at 155 percent, the study found.
Federal housing affordability guidelines suggest low-income people should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
In general, the study considers HUD's "Metropolitan Statistical Areas" (MSAs) and nonmetropolitan county housing markets when calculating local affordability percentages, but it also includes independent "fair market rent areas" when they are identified.
Because Columbia's housing is relatively homogenous and expensive, it's average rent is higher than other more diverse markets, regularly putting it among the most expensive markets nationally, said Ann O'Hara, associate director of the Technical Assistance Collaborative and one of the study's co-authors.
"Columbia, Maryland, has been way up at the top for at least the last three studies, and probably consistently in the very high percentages since the beginning," in 1998, O'Hara said.
In the last study, in 2008, Columbia was the second least affordable rental market, after Honolulu.
O'Hara said her organization has been hired by Maryland to help find solutions to the problem.