Housing complex called model

Affordable apartments at Hickory Ridge Place win accolades from state


December 23, 2003|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

When Ruth Ferry and her husband wanted to move 10 years ago, one recommendation rose to the top.

"They said Hickory Ridge Place is known as the Cadillac" of housing, said Ferry, now a widow.

Today, she and other mostly senior residents say the 108-unit apartment complex in Columbia still lives up to that excellent reputation - although its rents are considerably more affordable than the average luxury vehicle.

With the help of federal, state and local agencies, the Shelter Group, a Baltimore-based developer, acquired Hickory Ridge Place last year and renewed its Section 8 contract, allowing its low-income residents to continue paying 30 percent of their income in rent. Federal funding makes up the rest. In October, the group completed a $1.5 million rehabilitation.

The work earned the Shelter Group a 2003 Commitment to Excellence Award for the project from the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

"Every unit is precious," said department Secretary Victor L. Hoskins.

Housing officials consider the project a model of how affordable housing can be maintained in a community, because after a contract expires the building can be sold and the apartments can be rented at market prices.

"It's a case of doing good while doing well," said Howard County housing Director Leonard S. Vaughan.

Like Hickory Ridge Place, a number of other affordable housing complexes in the county - some project-based Section 8 buildings and others constructed with industrial revenue bonds -also are reaching the end of their commitments, he said.

"We're looking at between [300] to 500 units that could be at risk," Vaughan said.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is phasing out project-based Section 8 programs in favor of vouchers that offer tenants greater choice, avoid undue concentrations of low-income individuals and families, and encourage property owners to maintain properties to remain competitive in the rental market, said Harold D. Young, director of HUD's Baltimore office.

However, the department is renewing contracts for buildings that serve populations such as seniors or the disabled, Young said.

The contract renewal - subject to annual appropriations from Congress - indicates Shelter Group's level of dedication, Young said. "Other owners will frequently keep their options open to opt out between one and five years" by renewing only for that long, he said.

Although as many as 87 of the 150 projects across the state will expire next year, "in any given year less than 10 property owners actually opt out of Section 8 housing assistance," Young said.

The Shelter Group had managed Hickory Ridge since it was built in 1982, said developer Amon A. Martin, who worked on the project.

"We knew this was a very valuable affordable housing asset," he said. "With that market, you've got a lot of hot rents and low vacancy."

HUD and the state and county departments of housing and community development worked with Shelter Group to develop an arrangement to assist in acquiring the property and renovating it.

The state housing department contributed $253,000 in low-income tax credits, $5.2 million in bond financing and a $680,000 second mortgage, Hoskins said.

Renovations were needed because the building had not been updated in 20 years.

The Shelter Group made capital improvements such as fixing the roof and improving the heating unit. It also replaced kitchen and bathroom cabinets, appliances, flooring, carpets and other features.

To minimize the impact on residents, they were moved to another furnished apartment in the building. Professional movers helped them transport one week's worth of belongings.

Ultimately, Martin and others said, maintaining the property as a Section 8 project means the building's residents, about 80 percent of whom are age 62 or older, do not have to be uprooted.

Most tenants pay about $300 to $400 for the mostly one-bedroom apartments - which could go for $800 to nearly $1,000 in today's market.

"The residents haven't seen any impact to their lease or rent payment," Martin said.

As a result, residents such as Ferry were able to maintain relationships that are important.

"I love it here," said Ferry, 86. "When my husband passed away, I had all my neighbors and friends."

In addition, Shelter Group updated common areas and the community room and added amenities such as a beauty salon and a tot lot.

The latter, in particular, has been very popular with Ferry's great-grandchildren.

"Now they want to come all the time," she said.

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