Housing concerns may hold up budget

Program marketing worries delegates

March 10, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Key state delegates want to hold back part of the housing secretary's budget until his staff addresses concerns that the Maryland's housing programs are poorly publicized.

To make sure the internal assessment is completed to their liking by June 1, delegates plan to hold $250,000 of the $2.7 million in Housing Secretary Raymond A. Skinner's office budget, a sum one delegate called "near and dear" to the secretary.

A department spokeswoman said officials have begun "brainstorming" for marketing strategies and will submit any report required by the General Assembly.

The call for an analysis follows a report by The Sun that hundreds of people in Baltimore's suburbs live without indoor plumbing. Some homeowners said they were unaware of the state's 14-year-old low-interest plumbing loan fund.

"It's not just the Indoor Plumbing Program," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee overseeing the department's budget and the sponsor of the report requirement, which will need full House and Senate approval.

"We want to make sure [housing officials] are aggressive in marketing all of these programs and being accessible and getting the money out there to achieve the purpose for which it's being appropriated," said Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat.

The Department of Housing and Community Development runs an array of programs, including lead-paint abatement, rental-housing assistance and help for first-time homebuyers.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he was "outraged" by the Feb. 25 article, in which a housing official said aggressive marketing of the plumbing program "might generate a demand we couldn't meet" and "would consume the staff's time on calls."

In fiscal 2000, $103,000 of the fund's $275,000 went for plumbing loans. The remainder went into other rehabilitation funds.

"Your attitude has to be, how can we get the money out to people and how can we make a difference, as opposed to `we don't want to get too busy here,' `we don't want to be overtaxed' or whatever," Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg said he has been told by knowledgeable people that lackluster marketing of the plumbing program "is not an isolated example."

Fran Counihan, a housing department spokeswoman, promised a thorough review of outreach efforts.

"It's not going to be a Band-Aid approach," she said. "We really want to take a serious look at what we are doing and can do. That's not going to take a week or two. We need to take a comprehensive look."

The department tries to spread the word in part by setting up booths and distributing pamphlets at conventions, such as the People's Expo being held this weekend at the Baltimore Convention Center.

One housing advocate called the new focus on getting the word out "a good first step."

"Maryland residents will only benefit from knowing more about the various housing programs available to them," said Deborah Povich, executive director of the nonprofit Maryland Center for Community Development.

But the head of a nonprofit group that runs the plumbing program and others like it in Anne Arundel County cautioned that there is no panacea.

"The problem is not that there is not enough money or not enough advertising. The issues are much more complicated than that," said Kathleen Koch, executive director of Arundel Community Development Services Inc.

Koch said state housing funds cannot be used to pay for construction, even though in some cases that makes more sense than fixing up a run-down property. In addition, she said, zoning laws make it almost impossible to build low-cost housing in areas such as southern Anne Arundel, where no more than one house per 20 acres is allowed.

Koch said her group speaks to community organizations and has had luck with word-of-mouth but that "we will certainly be looking at new and expanded ways to advertise the programs."

State housing officials rely largely on groups such as Koch's to reach people who need help.

Counihan said the agency recently contacted local agencies. "We don't want to reinvent the wheel or duplicate something already being done. Or they may have an idea we can use," she said.

A plan has been devised to ask housing departments in other states for pointers. The department has also fielded calls from marketing experts with tips.

"We're very happy to take all the help we can get," Counihan said.

Rosenberg said officials should not worry that publicity will cause a funding pinch.

"Especially if they increased their marketing effort, demand might exceed what's there," he said. "That helps you make the case for more money down the road."

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