County housing officials are hoping that newly raised rent ceilings under a federal housing program will make it easier for low-income people to find housing in Columbia's high-priced real estate market.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development recently increased the Columbia rental ceilings at the request of county housing officials, who said the limits were too low for housing prices in the area.

In May, HUD had proposed that the price limit for a subsidized two-bedroom apartment in Columbia increase from $659 to $676 month.

But the county's office of Housing and Community Development appealed to HUD in August to consider increasing the proposed limits in Columbia, saying a more realistic rent limit for a two-bedroom apartment in Columbia was $756.

Under HUD's revised rent limits, which went into effect Oct. 1, the price limit for a two-bedroom apartment in Columbia is $718.

Although the new rent ceilings are lower than those requested by the county, local housing officials are pleased with the changes. HUD earlier suggested there was only a slim chance the limits would be changed.

"Some people felt like they were already too high, they were being negative about the possibility of getting them changed," said Sam Tucker, coordinator of the county's Section 8 program.

The purpose of the rental subsidy program is to help low-income, disabled and elderly people pay for decent, affordable housing.

Waiting for such Section 8 rentals is a problem countywide -- 665 families are on the waiting list -- and the average wait is close to two years.

But housing officials say the problem is particularly acute in Columbia, because of the city's high rents.

"We felt that the increases didn't reflect the market," Tucker said of HUD's original proposal. "We've had problems placing people because the rents don't fit the market."

HUD establishes "fair market rents" or rental ceilings so that at least 45 percent of an area's available rental housing falls below the fair market rent limits. The agency calculates its rents based on metropolitan area housing costs.

Although Howard County is viewed as part of the Baltimore region, county housing officials say that rents here, particularly those in Columbia, reflect the more expensive Washington market.

And because of the notably higher rents in Columbia, HUD has considered the city as a separate rental area from the rest of the county since the early 1980s, for purposes of setting Section 8 rental ceilings, Tucker said.

For example, HUD's old Section 8 price limit for a three-bedroom apartment in Columbia was $823, but the price limit is $684 for the same type of unit anywhere else in the county.

Under HUD's new Columbia price limits, the rental limit for a three-bedroom apartment is $898.

"When we look at where we are now in comparison to D.C., we're doing very well," Tucker said.

The Section 8 rental ceiling for a three-bedroom apartment in Washington is $914.

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