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Refugee relocation puts housing issue in spotlight

September 22, 2005

The planned resettlement of 230 Meskhetian Turk refugees in Hagerstown over the next two years should add some urgency to the search for ways to create affordable housing locally.

We suggest that Hagers-town officials and the Washington County government, which has a task force studying the issue, borrow successful, court-tested programs from other areas.

The Turks are coming to Hagerstown because they are not considered citizens of Russia, the country in which they live now.

Instead, according to The Associated Press, they are considered "guests" who have to re-register every 45 days. They are also often prohibited from having jobs or owning property.

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Martin Ford, associate director of the the Maryland Office for New Americans, a division of the Department of Human Resources, said the resettlement was taking place here because Hagerstown has a low jobless rate.

We agree with the council that affordable housing is in short supply here. With property values - and property taxes - increasing, rents are rising and some rental properties are being converted into owner-occupied residences.

So what can be done? On the matter of affordable homes, the county should adopt the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit program.

Developed in Montgomery County, Md., MPDU allows developers to build more homes than zoning would normally allow - if some of them are moderately priced.

Rentals are another matter. Section 8 provides some units, but as conversions to owner-occupied dwelling such as condominiums continue, there will be a need for something else.

One possibility: In July in Boston, the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, a group of public and private lenders, put together $2 million to purchase apartment buildings and renovate them into affordable housing units.

That could happen locally and even if local government didn't want to cluster affordable units in one building, it could subsidize renovations or provide other incentives for affordable units in buildings where other units were rented at market rates.

This might not be the best solution for this region, but the worst would be trying to design a program from scratch. Other areas have dealt with this problem and borrowing their solutions will save time, money and will shelter those in need more quickly.

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