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Housing wait may get longer Poor in Baltimore Co., city could have to compete, officials say

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Forgive Gordon L. Cook Jr. for feeling angry.

Mr. Cook, 45, who uses a wheelchair and lost his federally subsidized apartment last year after an accident, is one of 11,000 Baltimore County residents on a waiting list for rent subsidies. Now, the proposed settlement of a federal lawsuit could allow more than 1,300 people from inner-city Baltimore to leap past those on the waiting list, and get a shot at the county's scarce subsidized housing.

"Someone from the city might get my apartment. It just ain't fair," said Mr. Cook, who lives with his parents in Fullerton.

Mr. Cook represents the human side of a bitter dispute between officials of Baltimore City and Baltimore County over how to offer the region's poor families an opportunity for better housing.

County officials are furious over a plan to settle a discrimination lawsuit against Baltimore and the federal housing department by shifting families from city public housing to the suburbs. The officials say that would hinder their ability to house the county's own poor, noting that the waiting list for rent subsidies is nearly double the number of all vacant rental units in the county.

But critics say the county is feeling the bite of its decades-old policy of resisting low-cost housing to distance itself from the city.

The dispute could break out elsewhere in the nation, as federal budget cuts limit housing subsidies. That trend, coupled with a new federal housing policy to move the poor out of cities, could have a profound impact on suburbia's attempt to deal with poverty.

One man's struggle

Mr. Cook, who has had one leg amputated and lives on disability checks, spent eight years in a federally subsidized apartment in the Kingsley Park complex in Essex. His insurance company paid to have the one-bedroom unit equipped for the handicapped.

But in early 1994, a kitchen accident left his foot severely burned, forcing him into a lengthy hospital stay and then to his parents' home to recover. Because he was living at his parents' home, Mr. Cook lost his standing for a rent subsidy.

"All I want to do is get back to my apartment and live on my own again," Mr. Cook said from his wheelchair in the kitchen of his parents' home.

Meanwhile, his parents, Gordon Sr. and Ruth, who are in their 70s, are eager to move from their rented, white-frame house to an apartment. But they're reluctant to leave their son on his own.

Lois B. Cramer, head of the county housing section, would not comment on Mr. Cook's situation, explaining that matters pertaining to applicants for subsidized housing are confidential.

But she said that as businesses shrink and close, more people have joined the search for affordable housing. The list of county residents waiting for rent subsidies has nearly doubled in the past two years.

"We're adding two to three hundred people every month to the list," she said. All together, 3,997 county families receive federal rent subsidies under the program known as "Section 8."

Part of the problem is the lack of affordable housing. Federally subsidized rents are market driven, and in Baltimore County a subsidy for a two-bedroom apartment is worth $599.

County housing officials could not supply an exact count of affordable rental units. But of the 90,000 rental units countywide, about 6,300 are vacant.

Barbara Samuels, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer involved in the Baltimore lawsuit, said the proposed settlement would not affect those on the county's waiting list.

"Whether hundreds of families came into the county or none at all, there still would be a long wait for affordable housing," she said.

And that waiting list is not expected to shrink anytime soon. This fiscal year, the county requested federal funds for 896 additional rent subsidies but received enough for only 50.

Congress this summer rescinded millions of dollars already appropriated for more than 62,000 new subsidies nationwide.

County was lucky

Baltimore County was lucky, Department of Housing and Urban Development officials say. The 50 additional subsidies it received came from unused money from the previous fiscal year. Of the 2,600 housing authorities around the nation, fewer than 5 percent received any increase in funds, and most of those were in cities.

The money that was left went primarily to cities to replace public housing or was set aside for legal settlements such as the one in Baltimore. HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros has proposed doing away with public housing and channeling money to decentralize the urban poor by shifting many of those families into the suburbs.

Such factors, said Christopher E. Herbert, a Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies analyst, do not bode well for the suburbs.

"Those suburban jurisdictions that haven't invested in affordable housing programs could be in for a rough ride because the competition for Section 8 funds will become more fierce," he said.

Ms. Samuels and other fair-housing advocates argue that the problems faced by Baltimore County and other suburban localities are of their own making.

"If the county had been willing in the past to build affordable housing of some kind, it wouldn't have the problem it now has," she said. "And that resistance was built strictly on race."

For three decades, racially tinged opposition to federal programs was a driving force in county politics.

In 1964, for example, then-County Executive Spiro T. Agnew, considered at the time a liberal Republican, ignited a political firestorm by advocating applying for federal grants for urban renewal for Catonsville and Towson. In the next campaign for county executive, Democrat Dale Anderson won on a platform of keeping federal programs out of the county.

And it was not until 1987 that the county's housing program found a home in local government. Even then, officials were loath to put the word "housing" in the title, naming it the Department of Community Development.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III says race is not an issue in the county's opposition to the proposed settlement. City residents relocating to the county are likely to go into the older neighborhoods -- areas the county is pushing to revitalize, he said, adding, "We're trying to keep our heads above water in these areas at this point."

But Kale A. Williams, co-author of a book on housing mobility programs, said the county should welcome the proposed relocation plan. Families involved in the settlement would receive counseling and help in finding housing in low-poverty areas.

"Mobility programs that involve counseling and other assistance to poor families have been successful in directing them away from the poorer areas of suburbia," he said.

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