As housing costs skyrocket, affordable housing crucial

October 05, 2003|by Linda Irvin-Craig

The Hagerstown City Council needs to ask some educated questions about Washington Gardens Apartments before granting or denying the request from the potential new owners. These new owners have asked the city for tax credit sign-off support for rehabilitation of the complex, which amounts to no more than political support. If they get good answers, with substantial supporting reports and documents, then they need to support the request. Housing standards need to be upheld and supported, whether they are for Section 8, low income or any income category.

The first question is: Is it just age or have other factors played a part in this apartment complex being in such a condition that it needs $1.5 million in rehab?

What government agency was charged with oversight of its management from the time it was built? Were the original owners allowed to defer both on-going and major maintenance to the point of the ridiculous? Do the new owners have any financial connection to the original owners?


Is this just another version or subsidiary of the group that allowed this complex to be in such need of repair coming back for another bite of government subsidy? What plan will be in place to prevent a repeat of the current problems? Will there be a monitored reserve fund for maintenance and will the owners be required to use those funds for maintenance? What's the track record of the new owners in this field?

None of this means that the city should not support safe, decent and affordable housing for all as a matter of social justice. Affordable housing is critical to any community and communities have the right to expect, and enforce, standards for it. Often local wages for service-type jobs just don't keep pace with current housing costs.

The National Coalition of Low Income Housing has just issued a report placing Maryland as the fifth highest housing wage state in the nation. The housing wage is what a wage earner needs to earn to afford decent housing. To add to the problem, Maryland's housing wage jumped 12 percent last year alone. It's not likely that anyone's wages in Hagerstown went up by 12 percent.

The people who live in affordable housing are not all Section 8 and, unfortunately, the term Section 8 has become a catch-all description for what we perceive as bad about low income housing, both the irresponsible landlords and tenants. Many tenants of low income housing work, sometimes more than one job to pay their rent and keep food on the table. These hardworking individuals work in low paying service jobs that we all rely on every day. They clerk our stores and change our oil. They clean our homes, hospitals and the hotels that keep our tourism industry going. They wait tables, do lawn and garden maintenance, take care of our senior citizens and a host of other services that we all take for granted.

But with the jumps in housing costs, this population could just as easily include our first respondersthe police officers, firefighters and emergency techs, on whom every community relies to provide for our public safety. You can also add to this list health care and day care workers and teachers' aides.

Our community needs all of these people. They are important cogs in the community wheel. And important to them is the management of the rental properties where they live. Are repair requests met with appropriate response or are leaky faucets left unattended? Does the tenant agreement require adequate inspection entries and can they be increased when infractions are found? Are troublemaking tenants allowed to continue to reside there?

Bad landlords fail their good tenants and the community as a whole. Making them compete for responsible tenants is good market control and provides another tool for the city to improve its housing standards. It will either make them improve their properties and management rules or force them to succumb to the new code enforcement that Hagerstown has implemented.

Council members, please ask these questions. Forthcoming answers and appropriate documents will give you guidance in how to respond to this request and others. Don't blindly refuse access to tax credits to build, rehabilitate or improve the living conditions of low income families. Political support for tax credits requires no capital outlay of city dollars. And better living conditions for the low income makes for a stronger community and lifts all boats.

It has been proven time and again that improved rentals in an area increase the property values for everyone, including the owner-occupied housing in the same neighborhoods.

Not everyone can be or wants to be a homeowner. Those of us who share our neighborhood with rental properties appreciate the care and maintenance of responsible landlords and tenants in our midst.

Low-income housing can and should be done well. It's good for the families and senior citizens who depend on it and it's good for the community overall.

Linda Irvin-Craig represents Interfaith Housing of Western Maryland.

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