New Hilltop plan eyed

Incentives proposed to lure renters with moderate incomes

Attempt to diversify

Voucher program, grants considered for Ellicott City complex

January 14, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County housing officials are proposing a new plan aimed at changing the mix of family incomes at Hilltop Housing, the 94-unit public housing complex in Ellicott City.

More than half the families at Hilltop earn less than $15,000 a year, and the county wants more moderate-income working people there.

But instead of tripling the minimum rent for new residents to $300 a month - the idea proposed last month - the new plan would use incentives to infuse the 33-year-old community with families that are earning higher incomes.

One idea would use the existing two- to three-year waiting list for federal Section 8 rent subsidies by offering families a Section 8 voucher that can be applied to a wide array of housing if they live at Hilltop without problems for two years.

Housing Director Leonard S. Vaughan told the two members of the seven-member board who attended a recent Housing and Community Development Board meeting that Howard's rental market is so tight that some people who have Section 8 vouchers can't find a place to rent. In time, their vouchers expire.

"If you can't find housing, go to Hilltop [for two years] and we'll reissue the certificate," Vaughan said he would tell voucher holders.

That would provide more turnover at the complex, and also give families that are unable to find a place something to shoot for.

Under the plan, families at Hilltop with very low incomes who successfully complete a "self-sufficiency-type program" would be given preference for a Section 8 rent voucher.

In addition, Deputy Housing Director Neil Gaffney said, moderate-income families would be encouraged to stay at Hilltop by offering them grants that would match their savings in an escrow account. The grants would offer families the chance to save money for a house, job training or other long-term financial goal.

When vacancies appear at Hilltop, units would be offered first to families whose incomes fit into the mixture the county wants.

Vaughan said that low-income families in need would not be ignored, but barring someone in crisis, he would first offer a vacancy to a slightly higher-income family to maintain a more economically mixed population.

The goal is to achieve "a good mix of people who provide good models for kids. One of the failures of public housing is that it forms a subculture not reflected in wider society," Vaughan said.

According to statistics provided to board members, the goal is to have no more than 50 percent of nonelderly residents earning less than $18,950 a year.

Ideally, the county wants 35 percent of resident families to earn between $18,951 and $31,550, while 15 percent of resident families should be earning up to $50,500.

Excluding 21 units now occupied by elderly residents, 46 families at Hilltop are classified as "very low income," earning less than $18,950. Another 13 families have household earnings between that figure and $31,550, while three families earn more than $31,550. Two residents are disabled and cannot work; 11 units are vacant.

The county collects $20,202 per month in rent from Hilltop, and the median household income there is $12,188 a year.

Vaughan said the vacancy rate is higher than normal. That's partly because several units are being refurbished after families moved out, but also because some people on the county's waiting list for subsidized housing don't want to live at Hilltop.

Board Chairman Robert Brownell, who attended the meeting with board member Jennifer Beskid, said it was unusual for so many members to be absent. Vaughan said he would refine the staff's ideas for Hilltop, and present them again at another meeting when the board can vote. Brownell said, "Everything you said sounds OK to me."

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