The recently released annual report from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (MHCD) in Lanham, Md., offers a drone’s-eye view of the number of low-income families waiting for rental assistance across the state, from Garrett County to Worcester County.
Families are identified as those with children, the elderly or having disabilities. Median household incomes range from $31,750 (City of Cumberland) to $90,043 (Frederick County), with Wicomico County somewhere in the middle at $50,844.
In the past this population has been eligible for what are called Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers that allow individuals to live anywhere they wish for a fraction of the market-rate rent, with state and federal governments chipping in the rest.
The program is funded by Congress through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that works with our Eastern Shore regional Public Housing Agency and the Wicomico County Housing Authority.
People who have been selected are put on lists to wait their turn – as time passes – names are stacking up like cordwood.
There are 950 families waiting their turn and some lists have been closed since 2015, according to Molly Hilligoss, executive director of Habitat for Humanity, Inc.
Wicomico County is number two in the state with the highest number of families on the wait list. According to professionals, turnover is glacial.
“What I know for sure is that stable, affordable housing helps children excel at school, while not having a permanent address can be a barrier for finding a job, and how much you pay in interest when buying a big-ticket item, such as a car, is affected.” she said.
Early last month Hilligoss spoke before the Wicomico County Council about the Public Housing Authority’s backlog and asked for help advocating for more funding to help drive the numbers down.
She also used her visit to the County Council to introduce a new initiative by Habitat for Humanity International called, Cost of Home, that will try to advocate for more funding by influencing systems and policies.
“Yes,” she said, “In that way we are a grassroots movement.”
Her office will offer classes on financial literacy every month in English and Creole, in hopes of spurring awareness among low-income young adults – and others – on how to achieve a credit score of 600 or higher.
“A lot of affordable developments have raised their application credit score to 600. At the same time we can have a conversation about how to be a good tenant.”
It’s only natural that the companies who invest their money in affordable housing would want to protect their investment.
In the last two years, national media have picked up on the rapidly escalating affordable housing situation, pointing out that it is no longer an isolated, local issue but national.
Low-income individuals are paying as much as 70 percent of their income on shelter, leaving them with distressing choices – will it be health or education this month? Food or transportation?
In 2018, the New York Times published an article (“As Affordable Housing Crisis Grows HUD Sits on the Sidelines”). The article said rather than increase funding, HUD Secretary Ben Carson is focused on reducing government assistance to the poor to break what he sees as a cycle of dependency.
Other national publications explained that a less-than-optimum funded HUD combined with President Donald Trump’s post-election tax cuts to corporations that partner with nonprofits to build tax-credit (subsidized) housing will cause a dramatic drop in the number of units because it won’t cost less to build them and will result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of affordable units.
In Maryland, Sheree Sample-Hughes, delegate to the Maryland General Assembly for District 37A, and other local elected officials are on board with Hilligoss’s advocacy.
Several weeks ago, after spending months traveling around the state asking cities what was needed, she and her Eastern Shore colleagues met for an Economic Stability Workshop to see what the common denominators were.
Besides predatory lending, housing and funding were both hot topics. Sample-Hughes said she and her colleagues will be investigating how best to meet these challenges, making sure that any resultant systems and policies match up with new realities.
“The rent in the city of Salisbury is ridiculous,” she said recently.
During her 13 years in Maryland politics Sample-Hughes has cultivated friendships with federal counterparts, as well, such as Senator Ben Cardin, Senator Chris Van Hollen and Prince Georges County Representative Anthony G. Brown, and plans to approach them personally.
She’ll also work with the Wicomico County Council and Somerset and Dorchester Counties.
“The need is great,” she said. “Persistence is needed.”
Wicomico County Council president John Cannon said he’s had experience with Section 8 vouchers, since his business is real estate.
He cautioned anyone already on the list to stay there, because once someone withdraws it may take a very long time to get back on. However, he offered another viewpoint on the subject.
“Rather than something that is temporary,- I would like to see a program that promotes home ownership. When you have long-term investment, it‘s a better use of taxpayer funding,” he said.
Sara Bynum-King, who is Delmar’s Town Manager, agrees. She’s also worked with Section Eight vouchers and said that she recognizes the need.
“I recognize there is a need. More is better, but (more) is not always the best way forward. Do we want people to become completely dependent?
She believes if an historical overview is taken, it will reveal ways to defeat the barriers to independence and achieve the end goal.