For those without other options, public housing is an important cushion, often the last step before homelessness. Yet in Anne Arundel County, where 1,685 low-income families wait for subsidized housing, nearly 10 percent of the county housing authority's 1,082 units remain empty. The vacancy rate at one 200-unit project near Fort Meade is 12 percent -- four times the maximum rate deemed appropriate by federal officials. A dozen apartments in one graffiti-scarred building have been boarded up for well over a year. At last count, 94 units were empty.
This deplorable state is hardly surprising given the gyrations of the county's housing authority. The last six years have seen four directors come and go. The most recent, June C. Waller, arrived with big plans in the summer of 1989 and departed unexpectedly this January. The occupancy supervisor and a project manager also plan to resign.
The county housing agency's troubles began long before Ms. Waller's watch. Insiders acknowledge all manner of mismanagement: failure to perform annual inspections and income verifications; permitting tenants to live in apartments that fell far short of federal or county health and fire standards. This lack of pride and professionalism reflected a "who cares, these are only poor people" mentality among housing authority administrators.
Some progress has been made: Maintenance workers have rehabbed 34 empty units since January. But the housing authority, which relies on federal funds and rental income, is nipping at its reserves, a situation that is made worse by renovation costs of $6,000 to $7,000 per unit because of the years of neglect and deterioration.
High vacancy rates not only waste important affordable housing in a county short of it, but deprive its poorest residents of federal funds. The Department of Housing and Urban Development kicks in the difference between what it costs to run a unit and what the authority charges tenants -- but only up to a vacancy rate of 3 percent.
One possible solution is merging the county housing authority with its counterpart in the city of Annapolis. Another is the creation of an Office of Housing and Community Development that would oversee the authority, an idea being considered by County Executive Robert R. Neall.
The authority's high vacancy rate is characteristic of deep structural ills. The great danger is that these will linger even after the immediate problem is fixed. In a county with scant affordable housing, the availability of clean, safe public units run by competent and able officials deserves priority status. The county executive's office should be watching closely to see if the authority can turn itself around. If it can't, Mr. Neall may have to step in and propose alternatives.