Bring us your poor

Stigma attached to city's public housing success

Stigma attached to city's public housing success

November 19, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND and LAURA ERNDE

HAGERSTOWN - Local officials fear that Hagerstown has developed a reputation as a housing refuge for the working poor from the Washington suburbs.

In a Sunday story in The Washington Post, three Montgomery County, Md., families told of moving into public housing here after they couldn't find an affordable place to live.

Hagerstown Housing Authority Executive Director Ted Shankle said Monday that statistics don't point to a trend.

All but 2 percent of the city's public housing units are occupied by local people and local residents get preference in the authority's application process, he said.


The Washington County Community Action Council also has not seen a significant increase in help requests from individuals and families who have moved to Hagerstown from other areas, Executive Director David Jordan said Monday.

But the stigma persists that Hagerstown draws poor people, who bring with them social problems such as crime and drugs.

The fact remains that Hagerstown does have a large supply of public housing. Most of the 1,180 units were built shortly after World War II to fill a gap in middle-income housing, Shankle said.

Montgomery County, by comparison, has 1,500 public housing units to serve a population six times larger than Washington County's.

Hagerstown also has a large stock of private apartment rentals at roughly half the cost of those in Montgomery County. The average renter in Washington County pays $482 a month, compared to $914 in Montgomery County, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

City Councilman N. Linn Hendershot fears that Hagerstown's efforts at economic development and downtown revitalization will suffer if the city sports a statewide reputation for low-income housing.

"We're trying to breathe a little sunshine into downtown Hagerstown and we don't need any more negatives," Hendershot said.

Individuals who are genuinely trying to better their lives and who contribute to the community through work, taxes and community service should be welcomed, but those who move here merely to take advantage of cheaper rents and strong educational programs without giving back to the community might cause more harm than good, Hendershot said.

"I'm interested in what people are going to give back to the community, not what they're going to take," he said. "I'm not against poor, but I am against sorry."

Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said poor people are drawn to Hagerstown not just because of cheap housing but also because of a network of church-run homeless shelters, a well-run Department of Social Services and its proximity to a major state prison complex.

"You don't have to be a social scientist to know ... it's going to put some strain on the community," he said.

Shankle said he's been fighting the perception that his agency is encouraging poor people to move here ever since he advertised for tenants in a Prince George's County weekly newspaper five years ago.

At the time, the waiting list for public housing was down to 40 people and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds his agency, required him to seek more tenants.

Hagerstown officials were upset by the ad, which was quickly pulled.

"We asked the Hagerstown Housing Authority to discontinue because we felt we had enough problems with the drug problem and we didn't want to attract that kind of clientele," said Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner, who was the City Council's liaison to the housing authority at the time.

"I think we need to satisfy the local needs first, and I think that's what the housing authority is trying to do," Breichner said.

"We'll take care of our own, but we don't need to go out of our way to attract people from out of town," County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said when he learned about the ad.

Social workers in Montgomery County regularly refer families desperate for housing to Washington County, according the Post story.

"We've gotten on a list somewhere for affordable housing and we need to figure out how to reverse this information trail," Hendershot said. "We have a responsibility to our own citizens not to take on more than we can handle. We need to take care of our own people."

Shankle said he was surprised to learn that those seeking housing are being sent this way, but said it could be because housing officials across the state are aware of his efforts to improve the quality of the housing since he came to the position six years ago.

"We have a very good reputation," he said. "Our public housing looks like middle-income housing in Montgomery and P.G."

His staff has worked hard to try to rid the apartments of drugs and crime and has spruced up the neighborhoods with landscaping and fencing, he said.

As a result, all the apartments are filled and the waiting list has grown to 300. Another 700 people are waiting for Section 8 vouchers, which are used to subsidize the cost of private rentals.

"Our intentions have always been to have our public housing blend in with the rest of the community," said Hagerstown Housing Authority Chairwoman Carolyn Brooks. "Things that happen beyond that are beyond our control. We can't control word-of-mouth."

The housing authority also won a $27 million federal Hope VI grant to replace the brick cookie-cutter rows of government housing that comprise the Westview Homes housing complex in the city's West End with new, multi-income housing.

Construction of the $73.5 million Gateway Crossing is expected to begin within several months after existing housing units are demolished starting in early December, Shankle said.

It will open with 150 public housing units, 60 fewer than before, he said.

All of Westview's residents have found alternative housing, he said.

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