Homeless families may get vouchers

County finds it is $369,000 richer in Section 8 funding from HUD

Mixup in January led to miscalculation

July 10, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Up to 30 Howard County families - including many living in homeless shelters and motels - could get federal rent-subsidy vouchers later this year because of confusion over the amount of available funding for the $8-million- a-year federal Section 8 program, county housing officials said.

More families on the county's housing waiting list also could get vouchers, said Sam Tucker, Section 8 coordinator. Tucker and Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director, said Howard is rushing to spend money that officials just learned they have - but without overextending the program for next year.

The final number of vouchers distributed depends on a number of variables. Tucker said it would take several months to screen and process applications and issue the vouchers. Then, the families who get them must find a landlord willing to rent an affordable apartment or house that will also pass inspection.

"We give priority to people in shelters. We're going to spend the money we can," Vaughan said.

Like many programs nationally, Howard's has been caught in a tightening squeeze between increasing need and less funding.

Aside from hardship cases, the county's waiting list for subsidized housing was closed in November 2003. Federal funding has been shrinking, while rising rents and stagnant wages have increased demand, and people using vouchers are slower to leave the program.

Kathie DiNoto, shelter coordinator at Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, said five families and one single woman are living in the shelter, and six more families who could benefit are in motels. Only people with disabilities have been able to get rent vouchers so far this year, she said.

"We have a lot of families who could use the certificates," she said. "That's great news."

The families may benefit from a mix-up that began in January, when the county got what local officials were told was a full year's funding for the federal Section 8 voucher program - but was $300,000 less than expected, Tucker told members of the county's Housing Commission and Housing and Community Development Board at a meeting last week .

The $8 million-a-year program in the county allows low-income families to get a decent place to live, using federal funds to pay, on average, half to two-thirds of their rent.

Vaughan said the agency slowed spending by holding vouchers as they became available through turnover, while agency comptroller Suzanne Brown queried the federal department of Housing and Urban Development about the reduction.

On July 1, Brown said, she discovered that HUD had transferred $369,000 more than expected to the agency's bank account, and when asked, explained that the January payment was to cover six months, not the entire year.

Now, the county is rushing to issue more housing vouchers to avoid letting money go to waste, which is a delicate balancing act, Vaughan and Tucker said.

Under federal rules, Section 8 money or vouchers left unused are lost the following year as the Bush administration ratchets down spending. On the other hand, if the county awards too many vouchers too close to the calendar year's end, HUD might not provide enough funding the next year to cover all the vouchers awarded, creating a new financial problem.

"We're kinda caught in a Catch-22," Vaughan said. He is also worried about housing availability, he said, because rising home prices have tempted many landlords to sell their townhouses.

One of the two county housing inspectors is in the midst of a three-month leave of absence, which could further slow the process of getting low-income families into affordable rental quarters, Vaughan said. "We'll probably have to do some contract inspecting," he said.

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