Report: Federal government contributing to opioid crisis in Anne Arundel

Phil Davis
Contact Reporterpdavis@capgaznews.com

Anne Arundel health officials say the federal government is contributing to the county opioid crisis by restricting low-income residents with public housing assistance to “areas where drugs are readily available.”

In a draft report for the county’s Mental Health Agency’s Fiscal Year 2020 plan, officials wrote that Housing and Urban Development are effectively confining low-income residents to very specific areas by the way they calculate eligibility for housing vouchers.

And agency officials say people in addiction recovery are having issues finding housing in drug-free areas as a result.

The report reads “the rentals that meet the criteria for our individuals and families are typically in areas where drugs are readily available.”

“This puts a very vulnerable population at risk of relapse,” it continues.

A spokesman for HUD said a representative was unavailable to discuss the issue due to the ongoing federal government shutdown.

According to the report, the issue lies with the Fair Market Rental rate, which HUD uses to determine rental voucher amounts for programs like Section 8, the Housing Choice Voucher Program.

While officials say “rental rates continue to rise” in the report, HUD decreased the monthly rate for Anne Arundel County for fiscal year 2019.

In fiscal 2018, for example, HUD considered a one-bedroom apartment for $1,125 to be fair market rate, compared to $1,074 a month for fiscal year 2019. This reduces how much money someone is eligible to collect per month through the Section 8 voucher program.

According to Catherine Gray, clinical director at the county Mental Health Agency, it’s led to a centralization of Section 8-eligible residents in north county, where rental rates are lower in areas like Brooklyn Park and Glen Burnie.

She said part of the problem is that Anne Arundel is considered part of a “Baltimore-Columbia-Towson” generalized region by HUD for its calculations, a region also that includes Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Queen Anne’s counties as well as Baltimore City.

Gray said the county has lobbied for Anne Arundel to be considered a separate region or to be grouped with Calvert County’s region, which has higher Fair Market Rent rates.

She said the focus in north county causes further problems for the agency, which is also tasked with trying to place individuals with persistent mental health conditions sometimes tied to drug addiction, into reliable housing. Gray pointed to the drug trade in Baltimore and how it flows through north county.

“You really want an environment for the individual to reside in that is supporting their recovery,” she said.

She said people on Supplemental Security Income — a federal income supplement funded through general tax revenues to support the elderly, blind and disabled — also suffer under the rate.

Gray said it can be difficult to make up the difference in higher rental rates when the entirety of rent isn’t covered wholly by their monthly federal assistance through SSI and housing voucher programs.

“The reality is living on (Supplemental Security Income) is very difficult,” she said.

The county is in the midst of transferring much of its public housing over to private ownership under HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program.

Referred to as “RAD,” former county executive Steve Schuh outlined his plans in 2016 to rehabilitate seven of the county’s housing developments through the program, including Freetown Village in Pasadena and Meade Village in Severn.

It is a strategy by HUD, which has admitted defeat on a more than $20 billion backlog of repairs and rebuilds on public properties. It allows local housing agencies to sell their assets for the money to repair the buildings, but still gives HUD general oversight while the developer is under contract with the agency to maintain the property.

Schuh outlined a desire to include a mixture of housing units in some of the redeveloped public housing units in an attempt to mix in different levels of income in the community.

Brandi Francis, spokeswoman for County Executive Steuart Pittman, declined to comment, saying the administration did not want to advocate for a plan while the agency’s fiscal year 2020 plan was still being drafted.

Officials with the Housing Commission of Anne Arundel County did not return calls for comment Tuesday.

The draft claims the problem is further exacerbated due to the lack of one-bedroom units in the county.

Of the various people in programs meant to address housing and their mental health issues, the agency wrote “although there are some families in our housing programs, most participants are individuals, resulting in a higher need for single units.”

“Due to the lack of one-bedroom apartments available, it is taken case managers even longer to locate housing within the one-bedroom (Fair Market Rent rate),” the report reads.

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This story has been updated to correct the spelling and title of Catherine Gray.
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