Panel freezes Section 8 wait list

Housing Commission also delays vote on New Colony Village

Howard County

November 19, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Amid a tough economy with jobs scarce and housing prices rising, the working poor of Howard County lost an avenue for help last night as the county Housing Commission voted to indefinitely close the swollen waiting list for federal Section 8 rent subsidies for the first time in 15 years.

The commission delayed voting, however, on a long-awaited plan to buy the 26 acres on which 230 homes sit at New Colony Village, a development on U.S. 1 in Jessup, as part of a complex proposal to help residents who have been unable to sell or refinance their homes because they were built on leased land that was never subdivided into individual lots.

The vote on the Section 8 list came without comment by board members. No one spoke on the issue at a public hearing held an hour before the commission's 7 p.m. meeting in the county's Gateway building in Columbia.

The number of names on the list has ballooned from 1,500 to 2,800 this year, according to Leonard S. Vaughan, county housing director, and Section 8 coordinator Sam Tucker, while only four to seven apartments a month typically have become available. The list has 2,277 names, after some were screened out, housing officials said.

Rising rents have created additional pressure - causing each subsidy issued to consume more dollars. Meanwhile, the county is not receiving additional Section 8 money from the federal government.

"We didn't want to give false hopes to people that they could sign up and get housing," commission Chairman Kevin J. Kelehan said after the vote. The commission agreed to review the list's status annually to see if circumstances change.

Recent public discussion of the county's housing problems has focused on the lack of moderate-income units, but the need among lower-income people has grown, and closing the waiting list could mean hardships for families hoping to rebuild their lives after financial reverses, said Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, who runs the county's homeless shelter.

The board spent most of its meeting last night reviewing the terms of the New Colony Village sale and listening to owner Wayne Newsome, his lawyer and several residents from the community - all of whom urged approval.

But Kelehan said a vote was postponed until the Dec. 11 joint meeting of the commission and the county Housing and Community Development Board.

"We weren't ready to move on the facts we had," Kelehan said.

Commission members said they seek a clear indication from residents that most want to buy lots, and more precise information on how long it will take to legally subdivide and prepare lots for sale once the commission acts to buy the land.

Owners of the development's manufactured homes were left in the lurch two years ago when initial financing for the project ran out and resales became impossible. Although the residents own their homes, banks would not provide financing for new transactions because the residents did not own the land and had no way to buy it. Banks worried that if they had to foreclose, a structure by itself might not be enough to secure a loan.

The county passed a law in May enabling the lots to be subdivided.

The county Housing Commission can buy and hold the subdivided lots until residents can afford to buy them, or until they sell their units and move.

"We're behind this," said Kevin Dols, leader of the New Colony Village Buyers Association, adding that 75 percent of the homeowners are ready to buy their lots.

"Maybe I was naive," Newsome said of his project that put the 230 homes on the single lot that he continued to own, thus lowering the prices for buyers. "I felt once we proved the concept, lending institutions would get on board."

But they didn't, and the residents were stuck - including 22 military families, some of whom have had to abandon their homes when ordered to other parts of the country.

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