Seventeen months after a fire gutted the Charles County Department of Community Services building in Port Tobacco, low-income residents will once again be able to apply for subsidized housing starting Nov. 1.

The May 2003 blaze destroyed many of the agency's records and closed down a waiting list to new applicants looking for housing vouchers, formerly known as Section 8. At the time of the fire, the waiting list had grown to about 3,000, and it took three or more years for an applicant to move through the backlog, said housing director Lemuel Carpenter.

While officials and applicants alike welcome the reopening of the waiting list, that action does not mean there will be more places available.

The move comes at a time when officials and advocates for the poor see an increasing shortage of affordable housing across Southern Maryland and the state. Rents and home prices continue to rise sharply, pushing more lower-income residents to the long waiting lists for government assistance. In addition, rule changes adopted this year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have capped payments to local housing agencies for the voucher program.

In Charles, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,218, a level that is too expensive for 52 percent of the county's renters, according to the Maryland Center for Community Development (MCCD), a Baltimore-based advocacy group. According to a draft of a MCCD housing report, there is almost no housing for sale at lower price ranges, rental market vacancy rates are approaching zero and young professionals, such as teachers and police officers, are struggling to find homes they can afford.

In Calvert, 314 families receive housing vouchers, and more than twice that many are on the waiting list. The HUD changes -- which base funding for the program on past cost estimates rather than actual housing authority expenditures -- resulted in a deficit of about $209,000 this year in a $2.2 million program, said Wayne Boyle, director of the Calvert County Housing Authority.

As a result, Calvert will ask low-income families to contribute about $40 to $50 more toward their rent, on average. The increase will be phased in over the next year, Boyle said. Typically families with vouchers contribute about 30 percent of their income toward rent, and the federal government pays the rest.

"Over last few years, from the HUD perspective, they say rents are out of control. When rents went up too fast, then they had to find a way to not bust the budget," he said. "So we have had to take the extreme position of reducing the payment standard."

In St. Mary's County, where there are 1,263 households with vouchers and the waiting list has nearly doubled over the past two years to about 1,500 people, housing officials also faced a problem. The program's deficit of about $230,000 "would have required us to look at which 20 families should we not assist," said Dennis Nicholson, executive director of the St. Mary's County Housing Authority. But St. Mary's asked for an adjustment from HUD and last week received an additional $195,000 in federal funds, averting the need to cut vouchers, Nicholson said.

Still, St. Mary's said it faces an additional burden. Unlike Charles and Calvert, HUD does not consider St. Mary's part of the Washington metropolitan statistical area. The federal agency established that rent in St. Mary's costs about $200 less on average, but the reality of rental pricing does not bear that out, Nicholson said. He noted that two West Virginia counties were added to the metropolitan list this month.

"What's wrong with St. Mary's County, why can't we have the same fairness parity as our neighbors?" he asked. "[HUD's approach] certainly created a lot of stress and has created a lot of problems for all communities."