Western Maryland's hidden problem


Affordable housing is the invisible problem in Western DTC Maryland. The Western Maryland Interfaith Housing Development Corp., which just celebrated its fourth anniversary, wants to raise the recognition of this issue and, more important, wants to build 1,000 units by the decade's end.

Unlike cities that have blocks and blocks of substandard housing, most of the estimated 13,000 dilapidated units throughout the western part of the state are hard to find. They are hidden away in fields, in woods, in towns and villages.

An even more insidious problem in Western Maryland than substandard housing is the cost of housing. A growing number of people spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on shelter. For the elderly and for young families and low-income working families, the high cost of housing means they have less to spend on other necessities, including food, medicine and clothing. Every month, many families find themselves doubling up with relatives, living in shelters or even in their cars because they can't afford the rents being charged.

In Garrett and Allegany counties, half of the female-headed households are living below the poverty line. In Carroll County, closest to the metropolitan region, there aren't enough federally subsidized rental units for low-income families. Carroll County currently has about 900 subsidized units, compared to 1,500 in Frederick County and 2,800 in comparably sized Washington County.

In Carroll County, the high cost of land is the main reason for the lack of affordable housing. With land so expensive, developers can't get the return they want by building low-cost housing. Impact fees further discourage the construction of affordable housing because these fees are regressive -- they are proportionally larger for lower-priced housing than for expensive housing.

The Western Maryland Interfaith Housing Development Corp., which has developed 203 units in a year and a half, wants to accelerate its efforts. But it needs money to pay its staff. The organization also needs capital that can be used as "seed" for larger loans.

For local religious congregations, the housing organization provides an excellent vehicle for socially responsible investment. The churches can get an income, while their money finances sorely needed housing for low-income families. Most important, the project is one way of addressing a problem that is eating away at the economic health of the entire region.

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