After almost four decades of charging families a fraction of their income to live in Howard County's largest public housing complex, county officials are considering substantial rent increases.
Concern over the ability to cover operating costs at the 94-unit Hilltop Housing community in Ellicott City while major repairs on the aging complex are looming has led county housing director Stacy L. Spann to propose the increase.
Funding for the townhouse and apartment community comes from a one-eighth share of the county's real estate transfer tax. But the housing slump has reduced that revenue from $4.7 million in fiscal 2006 to a projected $2.8 million this year.
And housing officials also suspect that some families at Hilltop might have income they don't report, Spann said.
"We've got folks living there for decades reporting the same income," Spann said. "There's got to be some discipline."
But some tenants say they see the proposal as a way to oust longtime residents. Martha Ebb, 65, a widow caring for four grandchildren who has lived at Hilltop since it was built, said a significant rent increase would force her and others like her out.
"They are really trying to get rid of people," she said. "Half the people here would end up in shelters."
Hilltop opened in 1970 as the county's first public housing complex, built by the county entirely with local funding.
It replaced a string of ramshackle county-owned wooden bungalows along Fels Lane just off Main Street that for years comprised Ellicott City's segregation-era black community. The houses had no indoor bathrooms, and waste emptied directly into a stream behind the homes that routinely flooded the street after heavy storms.
A few former Fels Lane residents still live in Hilltop, even though they have incomes that require them to pay unsubsidized market rents. But most tenants pay very little.
The system calls for tenants to pay 30 percent of their income and for rent to increase when household income rises. However, that arrangement can discourage accurate reporting of income, said Thomas Carbo, deputy housing director.
"It provides a disincentive to families to increase their income," Carbo said.
County officials discussed raising rents at Hilltop in 2000, but no action was taken.
Some tenants report grown children who are not working as members of the household but possess outward signs of income such as vehicles, Spann said. The agency has evicted families who don't pay the current rent or who violate other rules, but more needs to be done, he said.
According to housing officials, reported annual incomes at Hilltop range from $2,991 to $50,083. Nearly half the residents report earning less than $10,000 a year and most of the rest are under $30,000 a year. Rents range from $53 a month to $1,059 a month. About 60 percent of residents pay less than $200 a month.
Last month, Spann made his case at a joint meeting of the Housing Commission, which is the county's housing authority, and the Housing and Community Development Board, a policy advisory group.
"We can't maintain a 94-unit property over 30 years old on these rents," Spann said. "If we try to do that, [residents] will be displaced" eventually.
Some members sympathized with Spann's situation but also worried about the effect of rent increases.
"My concern is you'll have displacement of people," said commission Vice Chairman William A. Ross.
Spann sought to assure the board and commission members that was not the case, saying evictions already have accomplished any displacement likely to occur.
Patricia Sylvester, a board member, suggested developing "safety mechanisms to help truly needy folks." Some residents are elderly and others have health problems.
"We are still housing the poorest of the poor," she said. "We shouldn't be charging more than 50 percent of their income for rent."
Commission members suggested a graduated transition to higher rents to minimize the impact on tenants, saying the residents shouldn't be penalized for how the county has administered the complex over the years.
"They're in this position because we let them be," said Paul K. Casey, the board's vice chairman. He suggested initially raising rents to half the intended final amount, and then adding 10 percent more each year.
Spann proposed using rents established by the state under the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program. If they are adopted, rent for a one-bedroom apartment would range from $439 to $879 depending on family income.
A three-bedroom unit would rent for $610 to $1,220 a month, once full rent is reached. A four-bedroom townhouse would rent for $680 to $1,360.
Ebb said she has a four-bedroom townhouse where she lives with her four grandchildren, ages 19, 18, 17 and 15. She pays $227 a month in rent, she said, and barely has enough from her $1,089-a-month Social Security check to get by.
"By the time I pay rent, gas and electric, and telephone, it's not enough to pay for groceries. I only have Medicare" for health insurance, she said.