City should be proud of its public housing program

August 05, 2003|by Ted Shankle

To the editor:

The latest spate of erroneous publicity regarding one of the Hagerstown Housing Authority's programs requires me once again to write a letter in an attempt to set the record straight.

The publishing of a front-page headline article, several subsequent letters to the editor, and the editorial of July 27 have elicited mixed emotions. When faced with problems that have no easy solutions, we seem to strike out at vulnerable targets, which, in the past, may themselves have been the subjects of bad publicity.

Assisted housing, in the forms of the Section 8 program and Public Housing, is one of those easy targets. Everyone has seen countless stories about the "bad apples" of assisted housing. Across the country the "bad apple" stories have reflected a handful of housing authorities that neglected their responsibilities regarding tenant selection and maintenance. As an enlightened public should know, a whole group should not be labeled due to a few "bad apples."


The Housing Choice Voucher Program - popularly known as "Section 8" - is misunderstood by most. Simply put, this program provides a federal subsidy to folks who qualify from an economic standpoint and do not have a serious criminal background. Folks who qualify are provided a voucher, which subsidizes their rent. They can take that voucher to a qualified landlord.

It is the landlord's responsibility to insure that this tenant has a history of being responsible. In the past we realized that some landlords were not doing a good job of this and the Housing Authority held educational seminars for them. We offer guidance at the landlord's request. And we step in when landlords and/or tenants violate the program, processing one or both out of the program.

The Hagerstown Housing Authority believes in confronting problems and seeking solutions. Six years ago, our public housing was subject to murders, open-air drug dealing, crimes of all sort and not-so-great maintenance.

At the Housing Authority's suggestion, former Mayor Robert Bruchey formed a task force to deal with the problems. Working together, we cleaned it up. Today, the open-air drug dealing is gone. Crime occurs, but is sporadic at worst, and our security meets regularly with the Hagerstown Police Department and other law enforcement agencies to address potential trouble spots.

Our tenants are subject to separate inspections of their yards and their homes (for cleanliness), and maintenance (for upkeep) that we non-assisted folks might consider invasive. They are subject to eviction for being arrested - not convicted, but arrested - for violence or drug offenses.

Our tenants are held accountable to an extent that may seem unfair simply because they receive assistance for housing. They must comply with the program or risk being disqualified for public housing.

It is our learned opinion that the problem in Hagerstown is not the Section 8 program or the Public Housing. Much of the housing stock in the city is old and obsolete and being rented out by absentee landlords.

The problems mentioned recently are tenants and/or landlords that would not qualify for - and most likely were evicted/dropped from - our programs. If the "problem renters" in the city are identified as recipients of our programs, we will take the appropriate action, and we would expect private landlords to be held to the same standard. On the other hand, folks who need a hand up should not be demeaned because of the actions of a few. These folks have a tough enough time without being labeled "bad people."

The Housing Authority is a partner of the city when it comes to helping and housing the economically disadvantaged. Gateway Crossing is a shining example. Working with the federal, state, county, and city governments, along with more than 30 local agencies, the school system, and the Health Department, we will eventually provide 62 new homes for sale, and more than 300 new homes for rent. Thirty-two existing homes will be rehabbed, and a beautiful community center will be provided to the West End of town.

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