Housing difficulties continue for low-income families

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The number of low-income families waiting for federal rent subsidies in Baltimore County has more than doubled in the last five years, and the size of the county's housing bureaucracy has grown, too.

But without more federal money, the county can't help poor families get decent housing, according to Frank W. Welsh, director of the county's Department of Community Development.

The administration of County Executive Roger B. Hayden is struggling to find ways of helping middle-income people afford new homes, Mr. Welsh said. Low-income people are beyond local help.

That's not true, says Ruth Crystal, director of the Maryland Low Income Housing Coalition, a private advocacy group. "They can't solve the problem, but they can start working on it," she said.

Ms. Crystal believes the county is taking the politically safe route of seeking funds to help the elderly and handicapped poor, but not the bulk of poor people in need -- young people with children.

"I fear that very low-income families are being short-changed because it is politically easier to create elderly housing," she said.

Juanita Williams, 41, who is struggling to avoid eviction from the three-bedroom town house in Essex that she has rented for 10 years, heads the kind of family Ms. Crystal meant.

Separated from her husband for the past year, Mrs. Williams doesn't get any child support for her six children. Her eldest, now 19, is autistic. She pays her $301-a-month rent out of the $688 that she and her son receive in social welfare payments. The family also receives $401 in food stamps.

Mrs. Williams, who has been on the county waiting list for a Section 8 federal rent subsidy for one year, said her landlord wants her to move out because her family is too large.

"Nobody will give us a chance," Mrs. Williams said.

For her and thousands of other low-income county residents, good, affordable housing is increasingly out of reach.

And although county officials are making more use of federal and state housing programs, there is still no policy to provide affordable housing, even though thousands of homes are planned for construction in the next decade.

However, in the last two years, the county has inched forward in piecemeal fashion.

An agreement for so-called affordable housing has been reached with Owings Mills New Town, the largest development in the county. The development's plans call for 5,500 units. In the agreement, the term "affordable" is defined as housing priced so two people earning under $43,500, or one person earning under $30,500 can afford to buy it.

The Hayden administration also has begun an informal policy requiring that developers seeking rezoning to allow more homes on their land must promise to price at least 10 percent of their units in the affordable range.

That wouldn't help people such as Mrs. Williams, however. So far, the new policy has produced an agreement in one proposed development called Avalon, an 850-home project in Pikesville.

Ms. Crystal said she fears the county's seeming inability to help poor families is just a politically motivated "cop-out."

She also criticized the county's new Comprehensive Affordability Housing Strategy, which the federal Housing and Urban Development office approved in April.

Mary Helen McNeal, a Legal Aid attorney who often represents clients facing eviction, also was critical of the county plan.

There are still "no programs for development of housing for [poor] families," she said.

One reason for inaction can be found in the 1990 results at the polls. Of $200 million in bond issues put before county voters, only one, $2.6 million for affordable housing, was rejected.

Robert Gajdys, director of the county's Community Assistance Network, the local poverty agency, said the plan approved by HUD could be flawed by the lack of 1990 census figures on the number of poor people in the county. The poverty statistics from the 1990 census are not yet out, he noted, and will likely show much higher numbers than estimated.

That would be bad news for Baltimore County's elected officials, who have studiously avoided making bold moves to help poor county residents get housing for fear of stirring local controversy.

Proposals for subsidized housing have been political dynamite in Baltimore County for the past 30 years, ever since then-County Executive Spiro T. Agnew proposed urban renewal powers for county government in 1964.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the dominant east side Democratic Party organization based its pitch on pledges to keep federally subsidized housing out of the county. That popular appeal played on white county residents' fears that low-income housing meant massive migrations of poor city blacks into the county.

"It's fear, fear of the unknown," said Katherine Stierhoff, chairman of the county League of Women Voters' housing committee and for 25 years the county chapter's director.

Racism, she said, "plays a part" in that fear. Ms. Stierhoff also said the county's reluctance goes back to residents' long held attitudes against housing for the poor.

Consequently, until 1981, federal rent subsidies in the county were administered by a private real estate agent. There is still no public housing in the county, and no local housing authority.

In its submission to HUD, the county discussed several possible new actions, but Mr. Welsh said it's not clear if any will be adopted. These options include suggesting that the county might create a housing authority and offer developers incentives for building lower priced housing.

Mr. Welsh also plans to convene a citizens' committee on housing this summer. Though all of these ideas have been proposed under previous county administrations, none have been adopted.

The county is helping in a few new efforts to house the homeless and poor, however. A joint, county-state-federal effort to create 23 units of transitional housing for homeless families at Rosewood Hospital Center in Owings Mills is under way, and there is a plan to build 53 more subsidized homes for low-income people in Towson's historic black enclave east of York Road. In addition, the county has used federal block grant funds to help subsidize rehabilitation of hundreds of old, run-down county apartments and guarantee their continued use by low-income renters.

The housing problem in Baltimore County, as elsewhere, is growing, however, as reflected in a doubling of the local waiting list for federal Section 8 and housing vouchers. In 1987 when the new county Community Development agency was formed, the list was 3,000. It is now 6,775. The typical waiting period is 18 to 36 months, said Mr. Welsh. Currently, 3,556 county families are living with the aid of those federal rent subsidies.

Because of the county's increased use of federal and state programs, its bureaucracy for administering them is growing too. The County Council recently approved a new lease for the housing office in Towson to allow it to expand from its current 6,000 square feet to 11,494 square feet. The county's housing rehabilitation office has also been assigned larger quarters starting July 1. Despite a two-year hiring freeze and the ravages of the recession, the housing office's staff has grown to 44 from 27 in 1987.

BALTIMORE COUNTY HOUSING AT A GLANCE

* The average price of a house in 1990: $130,000.

* With 5 percent down, a family would need an income of $54,636 a year to afford such a house.

* Estimates were that in 1989, only 32 percent of county families had annual incomes over $50,000.

Of estimated 268,280 households:

* 43,240 families had incomes between $32,400 and $38,475 -- classified as moderate income.

* 39,000 families had incomes between $20,250 and $32,400 -- classified as low income.

* 47,000 families had incomes under $20,250 -- classified as very low income.

* 15,348 of those very low-income families earned under $13,000 a year and could not afford more than $300 a month for rent.

* More than 15,000 county families were paying more than they could afford for shelter, or were doubling up with friends or relatives.

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