Subsidy rentals sparse in Howard Co., creating a tight market for recipients

Vacancy rate is low, single-unit prices high

January 02, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Vacancies in Howard County's tight rental market were so rare last year that some people with federal rent subsidies have been unable to find housing, reducing the number of Section 8 migrants to Howard by about 60 families over 1999, a consultant's study shows.

The number of individually owned single rental units in the county - often townhouses and condominiums - dropped 25 percent since 1999, says the study, which was authorized by the county Department of Housing and Community Development.

That, together with higher rents that the tight rental market is causing, has shrunk the number of families coming to Howard from other areas by about 12 percent, said Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing administrator.

"A lot of people were renting [their] townhouses because they couldn't sell them," Vaughan said. "Now they can sell them. People coming from out of the county are not able to find places."

He said that's because landlords view families already in the county as better rental risks and often know of places they can rent. People coming from elsewhere with so-called "portable" subsidy certificates have less chance to find a place that suits their needs.

The Section 8 program uses federal Housing and Urban Development funding to pay the difference between what a low-income family can afford and the market rent. People approved for a subsidy must find a place that suits their needs, passes inspection and has a landlord willing to participate.

Some people interviewed in the recent three-part series in The Sun about problems affecting some of Columbia's older neighborhoods criticized Section 8 tenants for their alleged role in lower school test scores and general decline.

But Vaughan rejects that view, saying, "Nobody else who moves to the county gets the kind of screening our clients get. A lot of families I've interviewed personally have kids on the honor roll." He said he believes that some people, including county school officials, might assume that families with behavioral problems are in the Section 8 program, even if they are not.

Long Reach, an east Columbia village featured in the series that has crime problems on one court, has the most single rental units in the county, the report says. With 500 units, Long Reach has slightly more single rental units than North Laurel, but nearly 200 more than Hickory Ridge, the next highest neighborhood.

Average home sale prices in Howard County are up about 4 percent, to $237,401, according to government figures. Vaughan said most homes being built in the county are luxury units selling for more than $200,000.

The report, prepared by RF&S Realty Advisors Inc. of Baltimore, says the vacancy rate in traditional multifamily apartment complexes in the county is 0.26 percent - 39 units. That's down from 1.7 percent in 1996-1997 and 3.7 percent in 1994-1995.

A total of 3,889 individual homes and condominiums were available for rent in 2000, compared with 5,100 in 1999.

Barbara N. Seely, a Howard Realtor, said the study reflects what she finds in her business. "We're seeing much fewer homes being used as rental units," she said. "When the market's good, inventory sells. Right now we have a very limited supply of rental housing. It's a good time to be a seller."

Blaine Milner, president of the Howard County Association of Realtors, said sales, including condominiums, "continue to be brisk." Homes typically sell within a week, he said.

While vacancies are going down, rents are going up.

The report says rents in Howard County have risen 4.1 percent since 1999, after a 3.1 percent increase from 1997 to 1999. Two-bedroom units rent for an average of $890 a month, and three-bedroom units at an average of $1,144. Townhouses rent for an average of $998 a month and single-family homes go for an average of $1,177.

Because Howard requires landlords to obtain rental licenses, the county can glean more information about the rental market than in places such as Baltimore County, which has no such requirement.

Peter D. Morgan, chairman of Howard's Housing and Community Development board, said the tighter rental market squeezes the Section 8 program in another way, too - by making it easier for landlords to choose not to participate.

"That will dictate if landlords want to participate in the Section 8 program," he said. The easier it is to get market rents without participating, the less likely landlords will be to seek subsidized tenants.

"This is something we are going to have to address," Morgan said. Howard is an attractive place to live, and "our job is to provide housing for anyone who wants to come to Howard County," he said.

Kevin J. Kelehan, an attorney, is chairman of the county Housing Commission, which oversees the Section 8 subsidy program. Kelehan said the scarcity of rental units works another way to limit Section 8 tenants because many don't have vehicles, and they need to find places near public transportation.

Sam P. Tucker, the county director of rental housing, said the usual time limit of 120 days for someone to find a suitable place to rent works against those approved for Section 8 subsidies.

"It's putting a burden on people who need to find housing," he said.

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