HUD halts change to voucher program in Columbia

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has agreed to scrap a proposal that would have significantly reduced housing subsidies for low-income families in Columbia, Sen. Barbara Mikulski's office said Wednesday.

The agency will keep Columbia's current rent limits in place for one year as HUD considers options for how it will set rent limits in the future. The rent limits determine the level of assistance received by Housing Choice Voucher recipients, who pay about a third of their income toward rent, with HUD picking up the rest, up to those caps.


As part of an annual update to its voucher program, also known as Section 8, HUD had proposed to apply metro-wide rent limits to the affluent community, ending a longtime practice of treating Columbia as a distinct housing market.

The proposal would have cut rent limits in Columbia by about 25 percent. About 950 Housing Choice Voucher recipients live in Columbia; they make up about 80 percent of the voucher holders in the county, according to county housing commission data from June.


Housing advocates said the reduction would severely restrict options available to families seeking housing there and possibly even force some families to move. They said the move contradicted other efforts to increase access to neighborhoods with strong schools and other opportunities.

The agreement to grant an exception to Columbia came a day before the 30-day comment period on the fair market rents for the current federal fiscal year was set to close and after Mikulski and other members of the Maryland delegation met with HUD Secretary Julian Castro.

"This is a win for all the families who work hard but need a helping hand to find an affordable place to live and a good school for their kids. And it's a win for a community that has been committed to affordable housing for more than 50 years," Mikulski said in a statement.

Efforts to reach HUD officials Wednesday evening were not successful.

HUD's fair market rent update also had proposed smaller reductions in rent limits throughout the metro area, withdrawing a bonus granted in an effort to reduce high concentrations of poverty. Those bonuses are reviewed every three years and were removed because they did not appear to be working to increase access.

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After the update was published last month, the proposal for Columbia drew the most scrutiny.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman wrote to Mikulski and other members of the delegation last month requesting assistance in fighting the change, which he said could also imperil efforts to include affordable housing in new development happening in Columbia, such as the one proposed by developer Howard Hughes Corp.

Kittleman said in a statement Wednesday that he was pleased with the decision to keep the rent limits the same.


"I am thankful to Senator Mikulski for her leadership and her pledge to remain involved," Kittleman said. "As we look at planned growth for the County, our shared goal of providing diverse, integrated communities and affirmatively furthering fair housing remains a priority."

Officials expect to meet next month to develop a long-term solution, Mikulski's office said. HUD is considering determining rent limits by ZIP code, rather than on a metro-wide basis, but those changes are not likely to occur in the short term.

If the reductions had gone through, new voucher recipients would have felt the change immediately. The new rates would not have applied to existing voucher holders until a second annual certification, providing a grace period of 13 to 25 months before they felt the impact of the cut.