A federal housing program, known as Section 8, is being applied in different ways in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. In Montgomery the emphasis in the Section 8 program will be newly built housing for subsidized tenants. Construction of that housing is now starting throughout Montgomery County. In Prince George's most of the funds are being used to aid families in existing housingunits. The following stories look at how the Section 8 program is working in both counties.
Prince George's County, with 97,000 rental units, is using most of its Section 8 rental subsidy funds to aid tenants in existing apartments and houses.
"We have more garden apartments than anywhere else," said Earl Morgan, director of the Prince George's Housing Authority, "so we can make the dollars go farther in the existing units program than in other parts of the Section 8 program. We have the vacancies so we don't need to build new buildings."
The county's rental units, which are mostly apartments, are about 45 percent of the county's entire housing stock, a much larger percentage than in other suburban jurisdictions in the metropolitan area. Also, the apartment vacancy rate is 4 to 5 percent, a high vacancy percentage, according to housing officials. For these reasons, county officials consider aiding families in existing units to be the best use of Section 8 funds. Currently, the county has 900 families receiving rental subsidies in existing units.
County housing officials have said they prefer to build new apartments with Section 8 funds only for the elderly and the handicapped, not for families. There are 472 units either under construction or being planned for elderly or handicapped persons.
Another reason housing officials give for emphasizing subsidies to families in existing units is that Prince George's has a large number of apartments for big families. "We have 50 percent of the metropolitan areas four-bedroom apartments and we have some five-bedroom apartments," said Morgan. "That's one reason why we're successful in taking care of large family needs."
Using Section 8 for existing apartments is also faster than building new units, according to Morgan. "We can have people in housing two years before you can get something new out of the ground," said Morgan.
"In some cases, tenants need not look for an apartment managed by a landlord willing to participate in the Section 8 program. Sometimes residents eligible for Section 8 are already living in apartment or house where they can be subsidized.
According to Lindsay Lucke, a housing consultant who helped Prince George's set up its housing assistance plan for HUD last year, "Section 8 is working very well with existing units on Prince George's). The overwhelming majority of the people who need housing are living in standard units and overpaying. So subsidizing people in their own units is more efficient, quicker and perfectly tailored to Prince George's, which has that kind of housing stock."
There are 2,700 people on the waiting list for Section 8 apartments, according to Mary Lou McDonough, chief of the Section 8 housing program in Prince George's. The county received $2 million in subsidy money during last December's funding cycle. With that money, the housing authority manages to place about 60 families every month. Approximately 100 to 150 new applicants are added to the waiting list each month. Most of the applicants want two- or three-bedroom apartments, McDonough said.
The program seems to have won the acceptance of many landlords and property managers, according to Morgan. "Landlords who took part in the program are spreading the word, "There's nothing wrong with the Section 8 program,'" he said.
Some property managers, experienced with the program, confirmed Morgan's feelings. "Section 8 tenants are just like any other tenants," said property manager Isabelle A. Neace. She added that she has no problems with the few Section 8 tenants who live in the 400-unit Forest Village Apartments, which she manages in Portsville."Kids are kids, and you're going to have problems with them whether or not they are in Section 8 families."
"I wish some of my other tenants were as nice as the Section 8 tenants," said Kathy Clark, resident manager for the past 11 years at the Presidential Park Apartments in Adelphi. Clark said that eight or nine of the complex's 851 tenants are subsidized by Section 8. They have included low-ranking military personnel, practical nurses and divorced women with children, said Clark. "Their portion of the rent is always paid on time," said Clark.
One man who rents homes in Mount Rainier and Capitol Heights said the Section 8 program could be an advantage to house landlords. "Many owners of single-family homes have problems collecting rents," he said. "Under the program, with a portion of the rent paid by the government, owners don't have that problem."
But the Grady Management company, which manages 3,000 apartments in Prince George's County and more than 5,000 in Montgomery County, refuses to take tenants on the Section 8 program, according to company official James Rome.
Rome said that if the managers of an apartment want to evict a Section 8 tenant the managers have to notify the county housing agency first before taking the tenant to court. "There's no reason to get involved with more investigators attached to more agencies than we now have to deal with," said Rome.
The new apartments to be constructed in the county under the Section 8 program are for handicapped or elderly persons. Morgan said that most of the existing apartments are not suitable for the handicapped and elderly, who usually need special features in their apartments.
Of the 472 apartments that will be built for Section 8 subsidized handicapped and elderly tenants, 222 of them are under construction and will probably open for rent in September. They will be located in a complex on Emerson Street in Bladensburg.
The remaining planned units will include 100 units in Greenbelt and another 150 on 42nd Street in Hyattsville.
"We think the Prince George's Section 8 program is okay," said HUD official Hannah Schusheim, who has recently reviewed the program. If she had found that Prince George's had not been using its funds to meet the county's lower-income housing needs, she would not have released some $6 million of community development funds earmarked for Prince George's, she said.
Some jurisdictions have been in danger of losing their federal money for programs by using their Section 8 money only to build elderly units. Some areas avoid building for subsidized families out of fear that they will be difficult tenants.
"Prince George's has used the existing Section 8 program effectively," said Schusheim, "but we may reach a point where we may say you've built enough elderly housing. They have not taken care of their families with six, seven, and eight members. We'll give them another year. Then we may suggest new construction."
McDonough admits it is more difficult for larger families to find suitable apartments. Eighty percent of the smaller families can find rental units for the Section 8 program in 60 days, she said. However, only 40 percent of the 300 to 400 applicants wanting four to five-bedroom units find their units in 60 days, according to McDonough.
But McDonough argued that Prince George's already has more larger family units than other suburbs. "Building new houses will house some families," she said, "but it won't make a significant difference."
The problem with large family placement could be alleviated with rental houses, McDonough said. But HUD will only subsidize houses on the program that have rents matching HUD's standard rent scale for apartments with equivalent numbers of bedrooms. The allowable rent for a four-bedroom apartment is $371. "That must cover utilities and for a house you figure about $65 in utilities," said McDonough. "That leaves about $300 for rent. That's just not enough for a house.
"The program doesn't work for all sizes of families," said McDonough about Section 8. "HUD's simply going to have to face that."