Requests for rent subsidies increase

Longer Section 8 wait list alarms housing director

Low pay, high costs blamed


August 25, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

High rents are making it nearly impossible for Westminster's working families to live without assistance, the city's housing director has told council members.

"The reality is, people can't pay rent where they are," Karen Blandford, administrator of Westminster's Office of Housing and Community Development, said at a Monday council meeting.

Blandford reported a rise in working families applying for the Section 8 Rental Assistance program, an increase she attributes to escalating rents, low rental vacancies and low-paying jobs.

Very few of those families are on welfare, she said. Many work in businesses around town, including discount stores, fast-food restaurants and department stores.

The 2004 Public Housing Agency plan for Westminster showed 453 families with children on the waiting list for assistance, a jump of 27 percent from the previous year.

Blandford said the expansion of the waiting list alarms her.

The overall waiting list for the vouchers - which also includes individuals and childless couples - jumped to 769 in 2004 from 674 the previous year. Blandford said 367 of those applicants live or work within Westminster city limits, while the rest live elsewhere in Carroll County.

Section 8 vouchers are part of a federal housing program that partially subsidizes rent for eligible participants. Westminster is allotted 289 vouchers, according to the 2004 housing agency plan for Westminster.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave Westminster nearly $2 million in grants to fund the program this year. But midway through the year, the local program's budget was cut by 10 percent as part of a nationwide reduction in allocations, Blandford said.

It is unlikely anyone will leave the waiting list, especially because only 2 percent to 5 percent of the county's rental properties are vacant. She also said that some families are turning to assistance because they are spending up to 70 percent of their income on rent.

Average monthly rents in the Baltimore metropolitan area range from $727 for a one-bedroom apartment to $1,345 for four bedrooms.

The program will pay 10 percent less of the fair market value of rental units starting in October, Blandford said. The program will only be able to pay from $660 for a one-bedroom apartment to $1,352 for four bedrooms. The reduced rate will be applicable to new leases. Current program participants will not see increases on their leases.

"This will really have a negative impact on people," Blandford said. "Not all landlords will accept that, because rents they can get from other people are higher. But our rents are more stable."

Those who can no longer afford their rents are forced to move in with other families, or they live with family members or end up in homeless shelters, she said.

"These are the people who are the last to feel the resurgence of the economy when it gets better," Blandford said. "By definition, these are people living in crisis."

Carroll County landlords said the cuts to the program will have an effect on who gets the scarce rentals available in the county.

"It's going to hurt the people that can afford it least," said Russ Arenz II, president of the Carroll County Landlords Association. He rents 25 units that have rarely been empty for the past few years.

He said he, as a landlord, does not differentiate between Section 8 tenants and others. He said 60 percent of his tenants are in this program. But the reality, he said, is that apartments will go to those who will pay the rent established by the landlord.

"There is an unending source of people that want - that need - housing. It is a seller's market," Arenz said.

He said that if landlords have to choose between someone with a HUD voucher who can pay 90 percent of the rent and someone else who can pay the full price, the landlord will more than likely choose the latter.

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