Who are Section 8 tenants?

August 17, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

Hagerstown City Councilwoman Penny May Nigh knows she's courted controversy with recent remarks about city residents who receive assistance through the federal Section 8 rental assistance program.

Ted Shankle, executive director of the Hagerstown Housing Authority, which administers the program, has found himself in the hot seat although he maintains that he and his staff have been steadily tightening up all the housing programs, screening potential tenants and saving millions in federal dollars in the process.

Somewhere in the middle are the residents, some of whom say the Section 8 program was a godsend, providing temporary aid when they were down on their luck or giving the working poor an opportunity to give their children a better chance.


Nigh criticized the program during a July council meeting, saying, "All Section 8 people are not bad, but three-fourths of them are."

She suggested participants in the program were more likely than other residents to disrupt a community.

Shankle countered that such disruptions likely came from another source.

"I firmly believe that the problem is not Section 8," he said. "I believe the problem is absentee landlords who do not have their properties in a condition where they would be qualified for Section 8."

Shankle said such landlords or their tenants "may have been Section 8 at one time but have been kicked out of the program. I believe the Section 8 program and public housing is just a good target for people.

"I really believe public housing was part of the problem," Shankle said.

But, he said, federal guidelines for the program that were revised in 1998 set higher standards for residents and landlords, and as a result, "we really believe that we're finding solutions."

Life in Section 8

There are 884 Section 8 households in the city, according to the Housing Authority. Roughly half of them include an elderly or disabled family member. About 83 percent of the heads of those households are either gainfully employed or receiving Social Security benefits because they are elderly or disabled.

Loretta Carpenter is a single mother who lived in the Westview Homes public housing project for 13 years before the project was razed to make room for the Gateway Crossing development. She has participated in the Section 8 program since then, she said.

From her tidy townhouse on Devonshire Road, she said, the transition from Westview to Section 8 was an opportunity for her and her son.

"I wanted to better myself," she said. "The neighbors are nicer here. It's a different atmosphere. My son has done a complete turnaround."

While her son's grades had been low before, Carpenter said he was "one point from the honor roll" at his school last year.

She'd like to buy a home of her own, she said, maybe at Gateway Crossing. Her son, now 14, would like to go to college. But times are tough.

Carpenter works part-time at The Stationery House on Florida Avenue. She likes her job and is trying to go full-time, she said, but "work is slow right now."

Catherine Meldron works full-time at The Stationery House, but found herself in a similar housing situation. A single mother with a teenage daughter and 3-year-old grandson, she had lived at Westview for 17 years before moving into a duplex in the city's south end.

"It's a nice neighborhood," she said. "It's a nice place to raise my grandson."

Meldron lived in public housing because "it was security; if my hours dropped, they would lower the rent. With a daughter and grandson, it's not that easy."

Her daughter finished high school a year early and went to work part-time to help support her son, Meldron said. Their new neighborhood is better than their former home for all of them, she said.

"I couldn't imagine even taking him to a project now," she said. "If I knew it was like this I would've applied for Section 8 a long time ago."

Strict guidelines

Carpenter and Meldron said they have to abide by strict guidelines or the Housing Authority would drop them from the program.

"No loud music, no fighting, no drinking, no drugs," Carpenter said.

And while the yearly inspections are strict on both tenants and landlords, "I've gotten 'excellent' every time I've been inspected," she said.

Neither discounted the possibility that some Section 8 tenants could cause problems.

"There is a few people that could better themselves," Carpenter said. "It's not where you live, it's how you live.

"I'd say maybe 15 percent are bad. As long as I've been in public housing, I've seen excellent people in housing; I've seen clean housing," she said.

"But then you had ones that just didn't care. But I don't judge them because you don't know their situation," she said.

"You have your riff-raff coming in and out as far as people that aren't supposed to be there, but I've never had any trouble personally," Meldron said.

Meldron disputed Nigh's assessment of Section 8 tenants.

"As far as this lady says, I don't think no 75 percent of people are trash. No way. The people I know that's on it has always kept nice places and never had problems.

"I know some people who own their own houses that are in worse shape."

When the Housing Authority hears about problem tenants, "believe me, they will investigate, because I've seen it happen in the west end," Meldron said. "They will call you in if they hear anything and you better be able to prove what you're doing is right.

"They do their job. They've cleaned a lot of the bad people out."

In fact, Shankle said, 51 households have been removed from the program during the current fiscal year because they weren't meeting standards, their landlords evicted them, or the Housing Authority insisted that the landlords evict them.

Another 30 left the program because they moved from the area, 48 left on their own for various reasons and 11 dropped from the program because of death or illness.

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