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Affordable housing hard to come by in Baltimore County

John Lee

More than 23,000 families in Baltimore County are on a waiting list for housing vouchers once known as Section 8. And while they're waiting, the long running debate over where to put affordable housing in the   county rolls on.

Take Chanel Harris, for example. She's been waiting for a federally-subsidized housing voucher to help her pay her rent 1998.

Harris said her name was deleted from the voucher list a couple of times, so she had to reapply. The last time she did that was 10 years ago. While she waits, Harris, her three children and her aunt live in her grandmother’s three bedroom apartment in Woodlawn.

"I love my family," Harris said. "But I’d like to love them a little bit from a distance."

Harris said she’s looking for her own place, but she can’t find anything she can afford.

"Even for a one bedroom, they want basically almost nearly a thousand dollars for just one room," Harris said. "And granted we are in one room. But I would never be able to afford that."

And that, in a nutshell, is Baltimore County’s two-pronged problem. Not enough vouchers to meet demand, and not enough affordable housing, whether you have a voucher or not. So even if you do score a voucher, it’s hard to find a place.

Once you get a voucher, you have 60 days to find a place or you lose it. But in Baltimore County, landlords can reject you solely because you use a voucher.

Jill Williams said once she finally got her voucher, she almost didn’t make the 60 day deadline.

"Most areas don’t want you," she said. "Most apartment complexes don’t want you because you’re section 8."

Williams is a Coast Guard veteran who raised a family in Annapolis. Her husband got sick with cancer and died. The medical bills drained her savings. Then she suffered a stroke and became homeless.

She got her voucher through a program for veterans. Once she got it, Williams said, she was advised to look for an apartment in Randallstown because that’s where she could find landlords who accept vouchers. Williams said as a veteran, she finds that frustrating.

"And now you tell me there are certain places I can’t live because of my low income," she said. "I was protecting you."

And that brings up another problem. The affordable housing in Baltimore County is concentrated on the east side around Dundalk and Essex, and the west side, in Randallstown and Woodlawn.

Councilman Julian Jones., who represents those west side communities, said about half of the county’s 5,800 vouchers are in his district. Although there is no public housing in Baltimore County, Jones said the current system is replicating the effect of creating pockets of poor people.

"So at the end of the day if we don’t curb this, we’ve torn down all of those high rises in Baltimore, only to move them into other communities," he said.

Last March, the county settled a federal housing discrimination complaint filed against it by three residents, as well as the NAACP and the advocacy group Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. Under the agreement, Baltimore County will start spreading affordable housing around.

County planning director Andrea Van Arsdale said they’ve been contacting developers in the year since the agreement was reached.

"So we believe we have really gotten the word out that we are ready to look at how to facilitate the development of affordable units," she said.

Under the agreement, 1,000 affordable units are to be built and leased by 2027. The county is putting up $30 million over 10 years to help developers finance affordable housing projects.

But most of those units have to go in parts of the county where affordable housing is currently minimal or non-existent. And it can take years for a housing project to go from idea to occupancy. Still, Van Arsdale says, the pipeline looks healthy.

"We are looking in Towson.We are looking in Owings Mills," she said. "We’re looking in Hunt Valley. We’re looking in parts of the southwest."

The county committed to leasing 10 new affordable housing units in the first year of the agreement and Van Arsdale says they’ve made that goal. But that number rises dramatically in the years ahead. Between 2019 and 2026, 100 new units need to be leased each year.

Kathy Howard, with Regional Management Incorporated, calls the county’s approach to spreading around affordable housing wrong- headed. Her company rents around 2,000 affordable units in Baltimore County, including in Dundalk. And she said it’s a mistake that under the agreement, developers get no financial incentive to build in Dundalk, despite the promise of thousands of new jobs with the redevelopment of Sparrows Point.

"Unfortunately, Dundalk is not considered one of those areas, and yet it’s probably one of the most up and coming areas in the county," she said. "Search me why they did that."

She said the county wants to entice developers to build affordable housing in more rural areas where there are no water and sewer lines , but it's "pretty much impossible to develop new multi-family housing when you don’t have those kinds of services available."

Thomas Tompsett, of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said the county is issuing mandates.

"They’re not working with anybody," he complained. "They’re saying you are going to do this."

County officials say that is not the case. They say that over the past year they’ve been meeting with developers and community organizations to explain what’s going on.

Vouchers also are part of the agreement to settle the suit. Under the agreement, the landlords who own the 1000 new affordable housing units will have to accept vouchers.

Also under the agreement, the county council had to vote on whether to make it illegal for all landlords to discriminate against prospective tenants who use vouchers. The council did that last summer and voted it down. Councilman Jones said this means the voucher holder often never gets his foot in the door to make his case to the landlord.

"Many, many of them are very good people trying to find a better life for themselves and they’re family," Jones said.

Housing advocates say it would be easier to spread voucher holders around if landlords had to at least consider them. But even if that happened, that would not change the reality that people are waiting a decade or more to get a voucher.

Marsha Parham, the executive director of housing in Baltimore County, said no new vouchers will be issued this year. That’s because once you get one of the county’s vouchers, it’s yours as long as you continue to qualify.

Meanwhile, the county is running a voluntary program for those voucher holders who want to be self-sufficient in which 400 families are enrolled. Each is assigned a case manager who helps with things like getting child care, job training and more education. As their income increases, money is set aside for them in a savings account. In return, they agree to turn in their vouchers within five years.

That way “we can get those vouchers back and turn them back into the community for people on that waiting list,” Parham said.

The issue of whether landlords should be able to turn down people who hold vouchers is now being debated in Annapolis. Baltimore County Delegate Steve Lafferty’s bill would prohibit the practice statewide. Lafferty has proposed the legislation in previous years, but it has failed to pass.

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