Housing aid, job could be tied Westminster weighs tougher restrictions for assistance

Council OKs proposal

Priority would go to the employed or to job trainees

September 24, 1996|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

Some low-income Westminster residents at the end of the line for federal housing subsidies could move up, while others near the front could be pushed back.

Westminster officials want to toughen rules for housing assistance. The City Council approved a proposal last night that would give priority to those who have jobs or are in job training programs.

Social welfare workers contend that the proposal would further erode aid to the vulnerable, including the homeless and battered women.

The change means Westminster would stop giving preference for housing assistance to people who live in substandard housing, are homeless, have been evicted or have left their homes because of physical violence, or who pay more than half of their monthly income for rent and utilities. Instead, preference would go to people who have jobs, are in job training, or who are elderly or disabled, which is required under federal policy.

"One of the benefits of the proposed new preferences is that it much more strongly encourages working families and encourages job training. That's what we like about it," said Karen K. Blandford, Westminster's supervisor of housing, community development and personnel.

Blandford said she doesn't plan to implement the new priorities adopted by the council until she gets word from federal authorities on whether Congress will continue that option for local governments.

Westminster's initiative stems from changes in federal housing policy that allow local governments to determine who should receive benefits.

Blandford said she will recommend that the council delay action on the proposal until it is known whether Congress will make any changes in the housing policy.

About six months ago, the commissioners changed the county's policy to give preference on a first-come, first-served basis. People who live or work in Carroll County are served before nonresidents.

Blandford said 23 percent of the 200 to 250 people who now have preference for housing assistance in Westminster would lose it under the proposed change.

Many people who have preference under the existing policy face a two- to 2 1/2 -year wait for help. Without a preference, Blandford said, "you simply won't get help."

Eliminating the preference for homeless people will make it harder for shelter residents to find housing, said Kathy Bitzer, who supervises homeless shelters operated by Human Services Programs Inc., a private, nonprofit corporation.

"It's not going to just be that Section 8 has new preferences; it's a combination of things -- welfare reform -- that are going to mean longer stays in the shelters," Bitzer said.

She said many shelter clients are looking for work but can't find jobs that pay enough to cover the costs of child care and transportation.

The Rev. Mark Lancaster, Carroll County's board member of the Western Maryland Interfaith Housing Development Coalition, has a similar view. The loss of a preference for housing may be "one more brick on a load that low-income people can't afford to bear," he said.

The county government's first-come, first-served system may be shutting out vulnerable people, Lancaster said.

Lack of adequate housing is a constant problem for battered women escaping their abusers, said Angela M. Lee, director of the Carroll County chapter of Unity Group, Inc., which works with victims.

"Do I think victims of domestic violence should be given priority and should it stay that way? A resounding yes. But what housing? It's just not out there," Lee said.

Carroll County has gotten faster turnover on its housing list since the commissioners eliminated preferences, said James Evans, the county's housing program manager.

Eliminating preferences moved the working poor up the list, which means faster turnover, Evans said. He said the county has an average of 750 to 1,000 people on its waiting list, most of whom wait six to 18 months for housing aid.

The priorities imposed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development pushed the working poor to the back of the list for housing assistance unless they spent more than half their income on rent and utilities, Evans said.

"Some working poor were on our list for years," he said.

Pub Date: 9/24/96

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