Housing officials in two of the three Maryland counties participating in the federal government's new rent voucher system say they are concerned that the vouchers will lead to rent gouging in an already tight housing market.
Two weeks ago, Anne Arundel, Charles and Carroll counties were granted $1.99 million, $1.3 million and $599,700 respectively to provide rent assistance to low-income residents during the next five years. The housing authority director in Charles says county officials are "delighted" to have the money and says it will be put to use immediately.
But officials in Carroll, north of Howard County, and Anne Arundel say they are skeptical that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program will shorten long waiting lists and alleviate chronic housing shortages in their jurisdictions.
"Under this system, there is no incentive for landlords to keep rents down," said Thomas W. Doerr, administrator for the Westminster housing and community development office in Carroll.
"The combination of very low-income persons going into an extremely tight rental market with a real possibility of paying more than the fair market value makes me skeptical the system will work," said Donald L. Rosenshine, executive director of Anne Arundel's housing authority.
Under the new test program, public housing agencies in 41 small cities or rural counties nationwide will issue rent vouchers to families who make less than half the median income for their areas. Each voucher will cover the difference between 30 percent of the family's income and the fair market value as fixed by HUD for different sizes of apartments.
The HUD grants will provide rent subsidies to about 30 families in Carroll County, 125 families in Anne Arundel and 70 families in Charles -- if vacant units can be found. In a new twist, qualifying families who make less than half of the local median income can theoretically use the voucher anywhere in the United States where a public housing agency exists, said HUD spokesman Peter Sentenari.
A family may choose to spend more than 30 percent on housing, a choice that does not exist under the federal "Section 8" subsidized housing program, which HUD hopes the voucher system will eventually replace.
Section 8 certificates are also rent subsidies, but families must live in public housing to participate in that program, Sentenari said.
"With the new vouchers, families have a chance to leave behind the awful stigma often attached to public housing," he said. There is also no mobility factor attached to Section 8 certificates, Sentenari said.
Federal officials say that while there is no incentive to hold rents down, families who find shelter for less than the going rate can pocket the difference.
Rosenshine and Doerr say the flaw in the HUD voucher program is that it relies exclusively on existing housing stock, without encouraging the construction of new units.
"The housing shortage here is critical, and by 1990 it'll be a disaster," Rosenshine said. "Anne Arundel alone could use 2,000 additional housing units right now. Instead, there is only enough federal money to build 367 units between Pittsburgh and Richmond."
Doerr and Rosenshine say that unless landlords voluntarily hold down rents to fair market levels set by HUD, many families will be forced to leave Anne Arundel and Carroll counties in search of cheaper housing.
"We will make every effort to make the rent vouchers work. But I'm not sure how much it will help us. Now families in Anne Arundel routinely wait between three and four years," Rosenshine said.
The voucher system "encourages families to shop around," said HUD's Sentenari. "This approach has never been used before, and it gives the family a certain dignity of choice. They can either stay in public housing, enter the private market or take the voucher and move to another location in the U.S."
Officials in the three Maryland counties disagree, saying that the mobility factor has been oversold and that the program is not workable for most of their housing clients.
"Very few poor people can just pick up and leave if they can't find a house in Westminster," Doerr said.
"It's such a red herring, we can't take it seriously," Rosenshine said.
Rosenshine said the idea that the new rent vouchers are redeemable anywhere in the United States where a public housing program exits sounds inviting at first, "but somehow it's missing the mark. What's needed is affordable housing where these people live, work and have roots. We can't assume they work at companies that will move their employes all over the country."
In Charles County, where 618 families are currently waiting for Section 8 housing, program director Marjorie Cheseldine said the new voucher system is "workable," and she plans to use the voucher money to whittle down the waiting list for housing by about 70 families.
"We're delighted to accept the money," she said. "Under the rules, at least 20 percent of the rent vouchers must go to hard-to-place families . . . and that's exactly what we'll do," Cheseldine said.
Cheseldine said the fact that HUD on May 17 raised its standard for fair market monthly rents for a one-bedroom apartment from $379 to $415, including utilities, makes both the Section 8 and voucher systems more palatable to Charles' landlords. "We're finally able to market these programs competitively," Cheseldine said.
A three-person family in Charles must earn no more than $16,100 to be eligible for a $595-a-month apartment in Charles.
To be eligible for the Anne Arundel or Carroll County programs, a three-person family must earn under $12,850. The family can then get a rent voucher for a two-bedroom apartment with a fair market value of $446, including utilities.