Demand rises for housing support

Backlog leads panel to close waiting list for Section 8 vouchers

October 26, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Besieged by 2,800 low-income families seeking help with their rent, Howard County's Housing Commission has voted to close the waiting list for federal Section 8 housing vouchers for the first time in 15 years.

Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director, said the county has not received new housing vouchers for the past four years and current certificates are turning over very slowly as the waiting list lengthens.

"We'll probably be closing the list for at least six months," he said.

Sam Tucker, county Section 8 coordinator, said, "We don't want to give [applicants] false hope. If we closed the list today, it would probably take us three years" to serve everyone, he said.

Vaughan said he closed the list for 30 days based on the commission's vote last week, pending a public hearing and final commission vote before the next monthly meeting, Nov. 18.

With new-home prices spiraling to the $300,000 mark on average, most discussion in Howard lately has been about how civil servants and working families can afford homes. But county housing officials and advocates for the poor say the swollen waiting list shows that people with low incomes are under increasing pressure, too.

"This is a sign of the times, and it's unfortunate," said Nancy Rhead, a member of the county's Housing and Community Development Board.

"Actually, it's quite a critical situation for our people," said Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, which runs the county's homeless shelter.

Shelter residents trying to get a permanent home normally need rent assistance to get a start, she said. Now, her staff is advising center residents -- most of whom are Howard County residents -- to "be creative" if they want to stay in their home county.

Shelter residents are required to get jobs, but depend on public transportation and local schools for their children. Without help, they can't afford housing in Howard County.

So Ingram said, "To solve your problem now, you have to quit your job, take your kids out of school, and start all over again."

County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said he did not know the list had grown so long.

"I think it shows we may be leaving out that end of the spectrum. We may be leaving out the most needy."

But Councilman David A. Rakes had a different thought. The east Columbia Democrat has worried that perhaps too many subsidized housing units in Oakland Mills Village in his district have created chronic problems and a bad public image near the village center.

"I think it's an opportunity to readjust, and rethink the process," he said, advocating more subsidized housing "outside Columbia in older areas" that would be "more integrated into the total community."

Rakes was not unsympathetic to those in need, however.

"Meantime, we have a lot of people without hope and in the lurch. We need to address that problem," he said.

Tucker said the turnover in housing vouchers has slowed from an average of about seven or eight a month to four units a month, while the waiting list has grown from about 1,500 to 2,800 families. Low-income renters with Section 8 vouchers pay no more than one-third of their monthly income for rent. The rest of the cost is paid by the government, Tucker said.

Vaughan said that higher rents due to the tightening housing market are using up Section 8 funding at a quicker pace and that people are not leaving the program as quickly because of the recession. Tucker said the program allows rents ranging from $899 for a one-bedroom to $1,385 for a rare three-bedroom unit in Columbia.

"The market's so tight for new homes that even people at the upper limits aren't able to make that jump to home ownership," Vaughan said.

The county typically sends out 300 letters at a time when units come open, he added, and initial screenings whittle away more than half the names on the list, because the county gives preference to those who work or live in Howard County, and eliminates anyone with "criminal or drug-related behaviors."

Vaughan said that "sometimes out of 300 we might get less than two dozen [qualified families]."

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