Housing program effects feared Relocations would strain resources, officials contend

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Though they expect few to take advantage of it, Howard County officials say they worry that a proposal to move public housing tenants from Baltimore to the suburbs could put pressure on Howard's efforts to help its own low-income residents.

Already, they say, the county has a waiting list of 1,200 families for a federal housing program that pays most of a low-income family's rent.

In Howard and elsewhere, the proposed relocations will "create more homelessness" because of the shortage of suitable housing and adequate services for the families, said Leonard Vaughan, director of Howard County's Department of Housing and Community Development.

"If this program does go through, the recipient counties would have to have some financial assistance."

Under a proposed settlement of a housing discrimination suit against the city, 1,342 families would receive federal rent-subsidy certificates to move from inner-city housing projects, mostly to suburban neighborhoods.

With such certificates, issued under the federal Section 8 program, residents usually pay 30 percent of their income toward rent. The government pays the rest.

The proposal, which would settle a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union, has sparked a political furor in Baltimore County. On Friday, U.S. Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros said he hopes to make the settlement more palatable to the counties by offering counseling and other sup[See Housing, port to the families involved.

As of late last week, Howard County officials had received no details on when residents might move to the county or how many might be involved.

Their best estimate is that fewer than 10 families would be likely ++ to relocate to Howard, with others deterred by the county's lack of public transportation and its high cost of living -- even with rental assistance.

Mr. Vaughan noted that in the past 18 months, Moving To Opportunity -- another program with similar objectives -- brought fewer than 10 low-income families to Howard.

The county also has little available rental stock -- a vacancy rate of just 4 percent through the end of October, according to a county Economic Development Authority report. "The majority of the residents aren't going to want to come here," Mr. Vaughan said.

Yet officials say they are concerned that even a small number could strain resources in a county where it already can take a family more than three years to reach the top of the Section 8 waiting list and where one-bedroom rents start at about $500 a month.

One fear is that the issuance of Section 8 certificates to hundreds of Baltimore families could delay Howard's efforts to get such certificates for those on its own waiting list.

Howard already has waited more than a year for new Section 8 certificates, Mr. Vaughan said.

But a spokesman for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development said that, because of funding cutbacks, the county likely wouldn't have received any additional Section 8 certificates regardless of the settlement.

"We are operating on a very restricted budget amount for providing new [Section 8] certificates," said Alex Sachs, HUD spokesman.

New certificates, he said, will be issued to people displaced by demolition of housing projects and to people who are covered by court settlements. Any new funding is very likely to be "limited and have strings attached by Congress," he said.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the Maryland branch the ACLU, was skeptical of suggestions that the resettlement program would in effect dry up the issuance of Section 8 certificates elsewhere.

"It doesn't make sense to me that that is case," he said. "These funds were set aside for people displaced by demolished units. It shouldn't affect anything else" that HUD provides.

Howard County government and social service officials say they worry that the relocation of even a few people could add to the load on agencies at a time when federal and state programs are being cut back.

"Certainly we don't need more people," said Dorothy Moore, executive director the Community Action Council of Howard County, a nonprofit agency that helps about 2,500 low-income residents. "I'm not sure how we're going to be able to meet the needs of folks right now."

For example, about 1,500 of the agency's clients receive heating fuel assistance through the federally funded Maryland Energy Assistance Program (MEAP). But federal lawmakers are expected to cut back funding this year and have considered eliminating the program.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker said other county social programs can expect cuts during the next fiscal year. "The revenue already is down," he said. "And if there are federal and state cuts, it's going to affect us."

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