More seeking U.S. rent subsidy

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County is reporting a sharp increase in the number of residents seeking the government's help with their rent, as affordable housing appears to be increasingly scarce in Baltimore's suburbs.

The waiting list for the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program, which provides rent subsidies to low-income families, has grown by 30 percent in the county during the past year, to what is believed to be an all-time high of 12,775. The wait list is nearly twice as long as it was four years ago.

The problem is being fueled by rising rents and home prices still inflated by the real estate boom, as well as increased costs for utilities and gasoline, housing officials say.

But affordable-housing advocates also say the county government's aggressive push in recent years to redevelop some of the county's oldest neighborhoods - leading to the destruction of thousands of low-priced housing units with few requirements to replace them - has been a significant factor.

The advocates also ask why the county has not followed the lead of other locales that have taken recent steps to address affordable housing. In Baltimore - where the waiting list for federal vouchers is so long that officials have temporarily stopped accepting applications - the City Council passed a law last summer requiring a percentage of some new projects to be sold at below-market prices. Officials in Montgomery and Howard counties have set up task forces to look at measures to augment programs that require the construction of moderately priced homes.

"It frankly feels as if county government is afraid to address the working poor," said Stuart Katzenberg, head organizer of the Maryland Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which helps low-income families find housing. "They can't consistently just make market-rate housing and exclude working people, and that's essentially what's going on. There's been a greater demand, and the demand has not been met."

Gregory L. Countess, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Bureau in Baltimore, called the county's efforts toward affordable housing "positively disgraceful."

"You tear down units where that housing is there, it's available," Countess said. "And you put people into a market situation where landlords are not required to accept the housing subsidy that is provided."

Baltimore County officials say the lack of affordable housing is a nationwide problem and that the shortage is less acute in the county. Prices in many of the county's older neighborhoods have remained relatively low compared with other areas of the region, they said.

The average sale price in the county last month was $317,622 - slightly higher than the regional average but lower than the average price in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties.

"We have a really robust, moderately priced housing stock throughout the county," said Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr. "That first-time homebuyer can find housing bargains literally all around the Beltway."

Redevelopment has taken place primarily on the county's east side, where complexes such as Yorkway, Kingsley Park and the Villages of Tall Trees have been razed in recent years. The Legal Aid Bureau estimates that the destruction of those complexes and others took away at least 4,000 low-income units.

County officials say the old, run-down complexes had deteriorated into drug havens and dragged down the broader community, and noted that their tenants received vouchers and other assistance to find new homes.

"When you concentrate poverty, then, obviously over time, we have found as a public policy it doesn't work," said Mary Harvey, director of the county's Office of Community Conservation.

Some projects being built in their place will contain affordable units under federal guidelines, officials say.

But advocates say the county must do more to ensure that affordable housing is built.

Countess faulted Baltimore County for having no laws barring landlords from discriminating against voucher holders. His group estimates that half of the people who receive vouchers are unable to use them because landlords turn them away.

"Unless you have some sort of source-of-income discrimination law in place, you create a situation where you have the vouchers chasing fewer and fewer available units, at least potentially," Countess said.

In the 12-month period that ended in September, the county distributed vouchers worth $37.8 million to 5,727 families and individuals, according to the county Department of Social Services. Federal funding for the program has increased in recent years.

The amount of each voucher is determined by a formula, set by HUD, that takes into account household income, average market rent and other factors. The vouchers ensure that families pay no more than 30 percent of household income on rent.

The vouchers have helped people like Aleta Williams, who was a single mother trying to raise four children on $1,000 a month when she started receiving the vouchers in 2001. She received the vouchers as part of a program that requires her to save a portion of her monthly income for the purchase of a home.

"It helped to push me to want more for myself," said Williams, who got off the program last year after buying her first home in the city. "It pushed me and motivated me because I was looking forward to the day that I [would] become a homeowner."

Lois Cramer, who administers the housing voucher program for the county's Department of Social Services, said she worries that the affordable housing shortage can have a domino effect.

"Stable housing is the fundamental for families being able to move ahead economically," Cramer said. "They can't send their kids to school, they can't get health care, they can't do the things that need to be done to upgrade the community to be a thriving community if the family doesn't have stable housing."

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