Making homeowners out of tenants County begins program for Section 8 renters

December 17, 1996|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County launches an innovative effort today that aims to turn tax burdens into taxpayers, tenants into homeowners.

It's called the Self-Sufficiency Program, and it mirrors efforts nationwide in the past decade as officials search for ways to move people off public assistance amid deep cuts in federal social spending.

More than 120 families have signed up for the project, which encourages Section 8 tenants to move off public assistance and into their own homes through job training and a down payment savings plan.

Most families don't move from public assistance to independence. But some do, and the prospect is luring families in Baltimore County.

"Someone has finally said, 'We're going to give these people a chance,' " said program participant Delores McCormack, a divorced mother of three in Baltimore Highlands. "We're good people. We've just had a tough time. And I'm going to do whatever it takes to make me a better person."

The Self-Sufficiency Program aims to bring people to independence -- but only after their lot improves by their own hands.

Sherrill Ruley-Carr, coordinator of the program, summed it up this way: "I'll give you a hand to assist you. But I won't give you a handout."

The program targets families in the federal Section 8 rental subsidy program, which is administered locally by the county.

Under Section 8, rent is based on the tenant's income. Although Baltimore County has no public housing projects, its $21 million a year Section 8 program includes roughly 4,500 families living in apartments and homes throughout the county.

Participants in the new program will enter into a five-year contract with the county's Housing Office. In that time, the county will help families find better-paying jobs through training programs and partnerships with private companies.

As their income rises, tenants will pay a larger share of rent under Section 8.

That's when the incentive kicks in: For every additional dollar a family pays in rent each month, the housing office will put aside a matching amount in an escrow account.

Ideally, at the end of five years, the family will move out of subsidized housing. And it will collect the escrow money, plus interest, which could add up to several thousand dollars. The money is earmarked for a down payment on a home.

The county incurs no extra costs because as the tenant's portion of the rent increases, the county pays that much less in rent to the landlord. Whatever the county saves goes into escrow.

If it works, Ruley-Carr said, "that participant is becoming a taxpayer. And that's one less individual that will need government assistance for housing."

But will it work?

The history of such programs nationwide indicates that whether they succeed depends largely on the person involved.

A previous nationwide program that included Baltimore County and ran from 1988 to 1992, called Project Self-Sufficiency, succeeded in 42 percent of the cases, said Ruley-Carr. Success was defined as a participant who enrolled in a two- or four-year college, or found a better-paying job, she said.

But the number of people who move out of subsidized housing in such programs is much lower, said Bill Tamburrino, director of the Maryland State Office of Public Housing for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"The hurdle from being dependent to being self-sufficient is a pretty steep one," said Tamburrino. "The success is limited."

Still, Baltimore County families are signing up with lofty ambitions.

McCormack, a Section 8 tenant since 1983, is among the first.

She pays $329 of her $423 monthly rent -- a relatively high share -- and the government picks up the rest. But she has no hesitation about paying more under the program since she will receive benefits in the end.

McCormack, who helps lease townhouses in her Baltimore Highlands community, hopes to work in the medical field someday.

"By them giving us that steppingstone to help us reach that goal a little sooner than later, not only is it a plus for them, it's a plus for me," she said. "I become a better person in my community because I'm a homeowner."

Another to sign up is Chris Cifarelli, a single mother of five who is studying for her GED with hopes of becoming a paralegal. Two of her children are adults, and Cifarelli is raising the others at home.

Cifarelli now pays $238 of the $825 rent on her well-kept home in Parkville. Last week, she talked of her goals inside the home, with its gleaming hardwood floors, pink flowers on the table and the Christmas tree decorated.

"It makes you want to get out and work because then you're going to have your own," Cifarelli said. "This program will help you to get on your feet on your own."

Looking at her son, Michael, 3, she said: "I was raised in the projects. I always said my children wouldn't be raised in the projects. I know in the future, I'll be owning my own home. Maybe this one."

The program parallels County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's goals. "Able-bodied citizens who rely on the government will learn that their own endeavors can lead to an independent, more rewarding way of life," he said. "Those who have the wherewithal to support themselves will be forcefully encouraged to do so."

There are similar programs in other housing offices throughout the state, including Baltimore and Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Cecil counties.

In Baltimore County, Ruley-Carr hopes to enroll 200 families, of which she hopes at least 75 will move off the Section 8 program after five years.

"I don't think that's unrealistic," she said. "It's all a matter of working with them from day one."

Pub Date: 12/17/96

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