Raising The Rent At Hilltop

Housing Officials Think Tenants Could Afford Increase

Commissioners Not So Sure

July 26, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Residents of Howard County's oldest public housing complex would face higher rents this fall if county housing officials can persuade skeptical Housing Commission members to go along with their proposal.

A vote on the idea for Hilltop Housing in Ellicott City split the four commission members in attendance 2-2 Tuesday night, meaning the proposal failed, but Deputy Housing Director Thomas Carbo said he and Housing Director Stacy L. Spann will bring the issue back at the Aug. 18 meeting in the county's Gateway building. One commission member was absent.

"The property has basically been under water for years," Carbo told commission members before their vote. Some residents with hardships pay less than $100 a month to live in one of the 94 apartments or townhouses, he said, and five tenants report no income. All but 21 tenants at Hilltop have household incomes under $20,000 a year, Carbo said. At the other extreme, one tenant reports a household income of $76,478 and pays market rent of $1,088 a month to live at Hilltop.

"A lot of the same families have been living there for decades," Carbo said, and more than half the tenants pay less than $200 a month.

This fiscal year, the complex is expected to cost the commission $319,343 more than it collects in rent to operate, and Spann and Carbo have argued that the county has no money set aside for renovations. The commission gets no county money, surviving on tenant rents and fees for administering federal housing programs. Real estate transfer taxes that fuel other county housing programs have dropped by over half since fiscal 2006 due to the recession.

Hilltop's rents, which require residents to pay no more than 30 percent of household income, are encouraging dependence in some residents, Carbo argued.

Hilltop, built on Mount Ida Drive on a hill above Ellicott City in 1969, was the county's answer to replacing a row of ramshackle wooden cottages that once lined lower Fels Lane, just off Main Street, in what was then a tiny enclave for African-Americans. The county-owned homes had no indoor plumbing, and waste went directly into the stream behind the houses. Every heavy thunderstorm brought a sea of mud into the road. Some residents who moved from Fels Lane stayed at Hilltop for decades.

Under the plan presented to commission members, minimum rents would double from $100 to $200 a month as one-year leases run out after Oct. 1, and other tenants would see a 10 percent rent increase, except for elderly or disabled people on fixed incomes, or in hardship cases. Although the minimum rent is normally $100 a month now, several elderly or disabled residents pay as little as $29 a month, commissioners were told in a fact sheet.

Maximum incomes for new low-income renters coming to live at Hilltop would range from $17,241 for one person to $32,512 for a family of eight.

New low-income residents would pay higher rates, from $256 a month for a one-bedroom apartment to $337 for a four-bedroom townhouse. As units turn over, half would be rented to a new category of moderate-income residents who would pay from $718 to $1,051 a month. Any resident whose income increases more than 140 percent of the income limits for moderate-income households would be forced to move after one year. Maximum income for new residents in moderate units would range from $34,482 to $65,023.

Carbo offered to phase in the minimum rent increase in $50-a-month increments over one year to satisfy commissioners' hesitation.

"You have adult children sitting at home that aren't working," added Sam Tucker, the county's housing voucher program administrator.

But commission vice chairman William A. Ross Jr. said he was troubled by the fear that the increases might displace truly poor people who have no place to go in high-rent Howard County.

"I'm concerned about these people at the real bottom of the scale. I'd like to know if people can stand that kind of impact," he said, talking about the doubling of the minimum rent. He pushed for a meeting with residents and individual assistance for families to help them adjust.

No residents attended the public commission meeting.

Hilltop resident William Colbert, 47, a deli counter worker at a nearby supermarket, was also a Hilltop resident as a child, he said Wednesday, and has had a one-bedroom apartment there for the past eight years. His sister also lives in the complex, he said, adding that a 10 percent rent increase would hurt.

"I can't afford it now," he said about his $800 monthly rent. "The high cost of living ... everything goes up, but your income doesn't go up."

At the meeting, Commissioner Patrick J. Clancy also voted against the new plan, saying "we haven't thought about it enough. I just don't feel comfortable."

Two other members, Carole MacPhee, the retired director of the Columbia Housing Corp., which operates hundreds of subsidized homes, and Maurice Simpkins supported the plan.

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