For Poor Families, Affordable Housing Is Disappearing

THE OBSERVER

December 15, 1991|By Mark Guidera

Danger's shadow lurked everywhere, it seemed, in Muriel Wilson's oldapartment building.

She found hypodermic needles in the hallways and feared for her three children. She crashed a foot through a rotted floor and feared for her life.

Late last month, the Wilsons' lives changed for the better.

They were among 10 families chosen from a horde of applicants to live in the Cedar Grove apartments in Edgewood, new housing for low-income wage earners.

From the outside, the blocky, stucco and aluminum-sided building on Cedar Lane doesn't hold much charm. But inside it bustles with parents, like Muriel, who beam with relief that they've final ly found a good home.

The 10 apartments were built specificallyto accommodate families and have three and four bedrooms.

While any new low-income housing is rare these days, large units for families seem to be bordering on extinction.

The private partnership thatbuilt Cedar Grove was able to make the project fly financially, in part, because the county's Housing Office agreed to subsidize a higherpercentage of the rent cost than is normally allowed on five of the apartments.

Although private developers find that covering the debt payments on small low-income projects like Cedar Grove is tough these days, the advantage of smaller building is that residents don't feel warehoused.

In Harford County, the waiting list of those seeking low-income housing and housing subsidies has stretched to an alarming 2,027 today, up from 1,150 in June 1990.

That list would be longer if the county Housing Office, which administers federal and county low-income subsidy programs, hadn't cut off applicants Oct. 31.

"We cut off the list because we didn't want to give anyone a sense offalse hope," said Amey Epstein, the Housing Office director.

One reason the list is so large is the recession. More people are struggling, rocked by the downturn, lost jobs and high debts.

But anotherreason Harford's waiting list for housing is so large is that construction of low-income family housing has been nominal over the past several years.

Most of what has been built, including a new project now rising in Havre de Grace called Lafayette Square, is designated for senior citizens, who are considered "safe" tenants.

But there'san aching void for more low-income housing for families with children.

To me, how a society addresses the basic needs of its children says a lot about that society's values.

A lot of people on that list of 2,027 have children. Some of the families pay more than 50 percent of their income on rent, leaving less to feed, clothe and providemedical care for the kids. Some are jammed into homes with other family or friends. Some are home less, dragging children to shelters andGod-knows-where else.

To address the clamoring need, the county must become more innovative and aggressive in spurring development of housing for low-income wage earners.

A good start would be the enactment of legislation similar to Montgomery County's. The law there allows zoning officials to require developers of projects of more than50 homes to set aside 12 percent of them for low- and moderate-wage earners.

In exchange, the county will increase the density zoning on the land to compensate for the number of homes set aside by the developer for low-income families. This ensures that land development costs and profits aren't skewed.

The county should also adopt a much more aggressive use of the same lures it wave at big business -- incentives like property tax abatements (given a few years ago to Merry-Go-Round to move to Joppa) and cost sharing on land improvements (granted to Frito-Lay Inc. last week.)

If the county can afford theseenticements for big business, it should be able to afford them for families with kids struggling for a better tomorrow.

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