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Nearly 30 percent of city rental units subsidized

May 20, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

Residents of nearly 30 percent of Hagerstown's rental properties use some form of government subsidy to help pay their rent, according to a study performed recently by the city planning department.

Planning Director Kathleen Maher said the numbers raise several questions, including whether the city has a disproportionate level of low-income renters, whether subsidy programs unduly concentrate low-income housing, and what, if anything, should be done.

Of the estimated 15,849 occupied homes inside city limits, about 9,214 are rental properties, according to www.census.gov, the U.S. Census Bureau's Web site.

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Planning department estimates released last week show rent is subsidized for 2,649 rental homes in the city. That represents 28.7 percent of the city's estimated rental housing, and is an increase of about 3 percent since the last survey in 2001, Maher said.

The homes are subsidized mainly through the federal Section 8 and the low-income housing tax credit programs. Eligibility for subsidized housing is based on government-set income levels.

Maher said there are 281 more subsidized rental homes in the city than there were in January 2001. She said the Gateway Crossing public housing project under construction in the West End accounted for the bulk of the new subsidized housing.

When Gateway Crossing is complete, it will have 290 rental homes and 64 owner-occupied homes.

The city's population has not changed much since the census was taken four years ago, Maher said. That means the number of subsidized housing units has increased in relation to the rest of the city's homes.

"That's certainly not a great indicator of the health of the city ... in terms of the community's ability to support itself through property taxes," Maher said.

Maher said it's difficult to determine why the people who moved into the housing needed rental assistance. Two possibilities are the renters fell on hard times or were priced out of where they had lived before.

Maher said the city is compiling information about "inclusionary zoning" practices in other jurisdictions, which require builders of large projects to include a certain number of low-income units.

The city also is thinking about finding a way to prevent overconcentration of Section 8 vouchers in some neighborhoods, Maher said.

Both methods would act to spread out low-income residents, which is important because "often there's a higher demand for public service where there's a high concentration of low-income" residents, Maher said.

Ted Shankle, executive director of the Hagerstown Housing Authority, said he believes the study is a good sign.

The housing authority owns 1,012 housing units, all of which are rented at some subsidy level.

"We're fortunate to have that number of affordable housing. Now, would it be better for the city to have more middle- and higher-income folks in the city? Yes. And I that's what the city's working toward ... (but) that's not what's pulling this city down," Shankle said.

Shankle said he sees a greater problem with the age of the city's housing stock, which cannot attract higher-income renters. As the city continues to develop, the amount of available subsidized housing will be good for the city, he said.

Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh said she believes Washington County could increase its share of subsidized units. She said that as the number of subsidized housing units increases, there will be a greater tax burden on the city.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said he thought the extent of subsidized housing is a concern in terms of the city's tax base, but he doesn't believe there are too many subsidized homes and doesn't believe anything should be done differently.

"I certainly don't perceive that we have some problem with subsidized housing," Metzner said.

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