Public Housing Squeeze

December 22, 1991|By JOANNA DAEMMRICH

Gwen Williams' worst fear is that one of these nights she and her three children will end up on the streets. Homeless and broke, she's had to move into a church shelter to wait for subsidized housing.

Unable to find an apartment she could afford on her own in Baltimore, but unwilling to return to her abusive husband, the 36-year-old school cafeteria worker signed up for public housing. But she fears she's in for a long wait.

Even in cities with well-managed public housing agencies, families often must wait for years to move into one of the complexes. Rental assistance for homes on the private market is even harder to obtain. And a cutback in federal funds over the past decade has made the problem much more acute.

Nearly two-thirds of poor families in the Baltimore area spend half their income on rent, far above the 30 percent standard of affordability. A divorce or job loss often leaves them stranded without any place to turn except relatives or friends.

Their housing options are bleak. More than 31,000 of the city's poorest households have applied for public housing. But only about 1,072 of the 18,395 units are vacated each year, less than the number of new families that apply. Another 1,721 apartments are off line -- under renovation or about to be demolished.

Extremely low turnover, little new construction and ongoing renovations have left a scarcity of municipal housing throughout Maryland.

It's a troublesome trend. Public housing, built as shelter of last resort for families down on their luck, has become almost unavailable for exactly those families.

Only very small, very large, and very desperate families get into public housing fast. The rest -- average families with two or three children, young parents who work for minimum wage, and single mothers on welfare -- have to wait anywhere from six months to 10 years.

Cynthia Thomas first applied for public housing in 1981, two years after the last family communities were built in the city. Even in those days, the wait was long, she says. Discouraged after several years, she gave up and moved in with her mother. Now, her mother is dead, and the 33-year-old is homeless.

Getting into public housing became much harder for families in the last decade. While the need for low-cost rental housing increased substantially, construction of family housing almost ground to a stop.

The scant public housing built in most parts of Maryland during the 1980s was for seniors. In Anne Arundel County, the only two complexes for families opened in 1971 and 1978. In Baltimore, 3,000 new public housing units were built in 1979 alone. But since then, only 600 have been developed -- all designated for seniors. And in Frederick County, public housing construction halted in 1971.

From Western Maryland to Annapolis, thousands of young, poor families are now languishing on waiting lists.

In Annapolis, the list exceeds 700 names. Housing Director Harold S. Greene, who admits the wait "can take years and years" because there is "virtually no turnover" in the 6,000 units, said he expects applications to grow with the recession.

The wait is even longer in Anne Arundel County because all but 354 of the 1,026 units are leased to seniors. Last week, a 21-year-old homeless mother was counting the days until she could move her four children into one of the public housing communities. She considered herself "real lucky" to get in just eight months after her home burned down.

Homeless people are given preference on waiting lists. But less than 10 percent of the homeless leaving shelters find subsidized housing, a statewide survey found last spring. A shockingly low number -- only 3 percent -- move into public housing.

"Public housing and publicly funded rent subsidies were among the least available housing options," reported Action for the Homeless, a non-profit advocacy group. "The most frequently chosen housing solution, and the one that is most disturbing, is a return to family or friends."

With little new housing being built and equally little being vacated, homeless women and children expect at least a six-month wait in most of the Baltimore region. The delay can be even longer in areas that have almost no public housing, such as Howard County. Many homeless families staying at the Grassroots shelter in Columbia eventually give up and move into Baltimore to apply for public housing.

Housing directors also blame the long wait on low turnover in the projects. "The idea was to give people a step up so that when the economy got better, they would go out on their own," says Charlie H. Smith Jr., head of the Frederick Housing Authority. "Now, we have generations looking at public housing as permanent housing."

Part of the problem is that times never got better for the families in public housing. While the upper class and some of the middle class enjoyed an economic boom during the 1980s, the fortunes of much of the lower class did not improve, several new demographic studies show.

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