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Housing Authority providing more housing on lower budget

September 19, 1999|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

As the Hagerstown Housing Authority heads into its 50th year, plans are being developed to tear down and rebuild one of its oldest and largest public housing communities - Westview Homes in the city's West End.

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But that is just one of several ambitious plans Housing Authority Executive Director Ted Shankle is working on.

Shankle, 49, is changing the policy on late rent payments, stopping the practice of picking up trash thrown onto tenants' yards and offering classes on housekeeping - all part of an effort to make public housing residents more responsible.

Meanwhile, the authority has invested in aesthetic improvements in the housing communities, planting trees and putting in fences "to make them look more like regular neighborhoods," Shankle said.

And the authority has teamed up with Hagerstown City Police to try to shut down the open-air drug markets that once thrived in the public housing communities.

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The authority is doing all this with $500,000 less than it had four years ago.

Tuesday afternoon, the housing authority's board of commissioners and other local and federal officials are expected to celebrate the authority's 50th anniversary with a ceremony in the community room in Potomac Towers on West Baltimore Street.

The authority was created in November 1949 by an act of Hagerstown's Mayor and City Council. It is an independent authority overseen by a board of commissioners appointed by the mayor.

Shankle said the original intent of public housing was to furnish housing for middle-income families after World War II, but the housing ended up being used by low-income families and the elderly.

The first two public housing developments in Hagerstown - Westview and Parkside Homes - opened in 1952 with apartments for 249 families.

Today the housing authority manages 1,180 units in apartment buildings and townhouse developments around Hagerstown. Through federal rent voucher programs, the authority also subsidizes rent payments for about 800 households in the city, Shankle said.

Shankle estimated as many as 6,000 people live in those households - about 17 percent of the city's population of 34,105, according to 1998 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The authority has a $7 million operating budget, which is funded by about $2 million in rent payments with the rest of the money coming from federal grants.

In future years, old public housing communities may be renovated or replaced, but there probably will not be any new public housing communities, Shankle said.

Instead, there will likely be an increase in the number of families helped through rent subsidy programs, he said.

"We don't see a need for more public housing because there's a big rental market in Hagerstown," Shankle said.

Shankle said that within the next four or five years he would like to completely redo the 210 townhouses in the Westview Homes community.

The two-story townhouses are becoming too costly to repair and upgrade. For example, the electrical wiring in them cannot handle clothes dryers, he said.

Tearing down the 210 units, providing temporary homes for the displaced families and building new units at Westview will probably cost $15 million to $20 million, Shankle said.

"It's a very lofty goal, but I think we can do it," he said. "There's a lot of hurdles to overcome."

Shankle expects recent favorable federal management reviews to help the authority secure federal funding for the project.

In the last two years, the authority has received the highest possible rating from the government, he said.

Starting this month, the authority has a new way of dealing with tenants who are repeatedly late with their rent payments.

If tenants are late paying their rent three times in a 12-month period, they will be evicted, Shankle said.

He said some tenants have been waiting until the authority gets a court judgment against them to pay their rent, a costly and time-consuming process for the housing authority.

Currently a housing authority dump truck goes around to the different communities picking up trash, mostly large items such as furniture, that is just tossed outside.

Shankle said they will be cutting back and then ending that service soon, which he figures will save the authority about $50,000.

The authority, which is also an important conduit for social services, is going to teach housecleaning to tenants.

"You'd be surprised how many 18-year-old mothers don't know how to clean a house," Shankle said.

Shankle said in the last few years there has been a push to make the public housing communities look like other neighborhoods.

Fences and bushes have gone in around the townhouses at Westview and Frederick Manor.

"It looks real attractive and makes people feel better," Shankle said.

Lisa Stickley, 38, who lives in Frederick Manor with four children, said: "I think we have one of the nicest neighborhoods here."

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