Lack of cheap housing in Harford documented Study finds poor can't afford homes

April 04, 1993|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

A growing shortage of moderate- and low-income housing in Harford is pricing many county residents out of the market, says a new report.

While Harford's housing costs overall remain lower than those in other suburban counties in the region, households earning less than $25,000 a year "face significant housing problems," says the report by the the nonprofit Enterprise Foundation of Columbia.

"Single-earner households . . . and others, including many of the disabled and the elderly and all those on public assistance, are largely priced out of homeownership and faced with limited rental choices," the report says.

The housing assessment was commissioned last fall by the Harford County government, the Harford County chapter of the National Association of Homebuilders and ECHCO, a coalition of churches. They paid Enterprise $9,000 to research the county's resources and needs and to make broad recommendations.

The report, still in draft form, will be reviewed by the county's 15-member Housing Commission Wednesday.

The report indicates that the relative affordability of Harford's housing is responsible in part for the county's 60 percent increase in population in the past two decades. In addition, there was a 40 percent increase in employment here between 1980 and 1990, mostly from service jobs created to support the larger population.

But, the report says, Harford workers have been hurt by the shift from high-wage manufacturing jobs toward lower-wage jobs in service-related businesses. It suggests that if the county continues to attract near-minimum-wage jobs, it will have to provide more housing comparable to those incomes.

"A significant portion of the new jobs created in recent years pay between $13,000 and $18,000 a year," the report notes -- hardly enough to support the median purchase price of a home -- $120,000 in 1990.

Housing costs in the county have risen more rapidly than incomes. The value of an average home was only twice the region's median income in 1970, the report says. But by 1990, an average home was worth more than 3 1/3 times the median income.

The availability of affordable rental housing for the poor is equally tight. The report indicates that since 1990, the demand for federal Section 8 vouchers, which essentially supplement income to pay the rent, has been four times the amount available.

The Enterprise Foundation, a nonprofit organization created by Columbia developer James W. Rouse, has a national reputation for working with neighborhood groups and local organizations to advance housing programs for low-income people.

Its researchers interviewed about 50 people, including Harford County leaders, business people, bankers and real estate agents and reviewed county demographic and housing information, such as the 1990 Census reports.

The Housing Commission was created by the administration about 18 months ago as an umbrella group to assess the housing picture in the county. County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann said she expects the group to review the Enterprise report and suggest a strategy for dealing with its recommendations. She said she couldn't comment on the report's findings because she had not read the draft.

"The whole point of this report is to help us see where our priorities are," said Theresa M. Pierno, a District C Democrat who represents the County Council on the Housing Commission. "There's definitely a gap we're not filling. There's a large percentage of the county that can't buy a home, and we need to address who those people are and what their income is."

The report said that while a third of the for-sale homes in the county cost between $60,000 and $100,000, well under the median, they still are out of reach of most households making less than $25,000 a year.

"I think the study illustrates that we need to focus on bringing more technical and higher-end jobs into the county," said Mrs. Pierno. She said many recent economic development efforts have produced warehouse work and part-time retail jobs that have lowered the average income of residents and put home ownership out of their reach.

The rental housing shortage is particularly acute for county residents with minimal income. With 4,400 households with less $10,000 annual income, "there are only 2,200 units that rent for less than the $250 a month that such households can afford," the report says.

Families who rely on public assistance and do not receive housing subsidies face a more serious problem.

In fact, the report says, the demand for low-cost housing in the county has become so great that the waiting list for Section 8 rental assistance was closed in October 1991 with 2,000 households listed.

The report noted the pockets of low-income housing and recommended developing a strategy for interspersing affordable housing with other housing.

Most of Enterprise's recommendations are far less specific than its fact-finding: It suggests "building" strategies, creating opportunities for homeownership and expanding coordination among agencies. One of its key suggestions is the creation of a not-for-profit organization to advocate and carry out housing solutions.

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