Charles County residents who receive federal housing assistance shared questions and concerns about a proposed change to the county’s housing voucher program with elected officials and staff last week at a public meeting in La Plata.
Participants had mixed reactions to the county’s proposal to add a second voucher option for program participants that would allow some rental subsidies to be tied to specific properties. Currently, housing assistance recipients may use their vouchers to rent any apartment or home that meets county and federal standards.
Crystal Hunt, chief of staff to the Charles County Board of Commissioners, guided the discussion by asking questions about the value of the proposed project-based voucher to the meeting participants. Department of Community Services director Dina Barclay and housing authority chief Rita Wood were available to answer questions about how the new voucher would work in practice.
All five members of the Charles County Board of Commissioners attended the meeting and engaged in the discussion, which lasted a little over 90 minutes.
The county is considering the change in response to a proposal from Enterprise Homes Inc., which is seeking to build a four-building apartment complex on Washington Avenue between the Park and Ride and the new assisted-living facility that is currently under construction. The proposed design would have a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units, with 12 reserved for people with disabilities. Sixty units would be designated for people who earn between 20% and 80% of the area’s median income.
Enterprise Homes is concerned that without project-based vouchers, there would be no guarantee that the facility would always have the minimum number of qualifying residents living there at any one time.
Enterprise Homes is proposing to fund the project through the use of state-administered low-income housing tax credits to offset construction costs. The company, which has built similar projects in Baltimore City, Halethorpe and Washington, D.C., sought a letter of support from the county commissioners for the company’s application for a tax credit.
The commissioners ultimately voted to approve a letter of endorsement with changes proposed by Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) that emphasized the commissioners’ support for affordable housing projects throughout the county, rather than specific support for the Enterprise Homes proposal.
At the suggestion of the county commissioners, Enterprise vice president Ned Howe also briefed the La Plata town council on the details of the proposed housing project during a work session earlier this month.
Participants in last week’s discussion with the county commissioners said they valued having the option to move based on the availability of schools, amenities and transit.
Because housing vouchers are issued by the federal government, they can be used elsewhere in Maryland and even in other states.
They also expressed concern that fewer places in Charles County were accepting vouchers than before and many are in congested, noisy and crime-prone areas.
Asked if they would be considering switching to project-based vouchers based on what they had learned during the discussion, several said they preferred to stick with the housing choice option, although after further discussion several of them said they might reconsider that.
Barclay and Wood explained that if the project-based voucher option were to be implemented, voucher recipients would not be bumped to the bottom of the waiting list if their preferred voucher was unavailable when their name came to the top of the list.
In the federal housing choice voucher program — sometimes called Section 8, for the portion of the federal housing act that codifies it — the Department of Community Services pays landlords a specified subsidy that enables participants to pay a reduced rent. In some circumstances, families may use vouchers to purchase a home.
Over 300 landlords in Charles County currently accept rent subsidy vouchers.
Currently, the Charles County waiting list is full and not accepting applications.
During the free-ranging discussion, residents also touched on related issues such as the social stigma surrounding subsidized housing, crime in the county and the need for better coordination among community services to help housing assistance recipients transition out of the program and become self-sustaining.
“There’s really no one way to approach this,” said Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D). “Everything that you’re saying, all of your comments suggest that it’s a much broader focus that is necessary in order for us to address a lot of the issues that you’ve raised.”
Collins said that it has been challenging to generate public support for affordable housing in Charles County because people tend to reflexively react by saying, “I don’t want this in my community. It will attract a certain element.”
“The focus today is primarily on this voucher program, but your comments are making it very clear to me that in addition to looking at this issue, it’s imperative on the part of this board to also look more broadly at the issues associated with housing affordability, dealing with the stigmas that are associated whenever you start talking about issues of affordability, and being very consistent in our approach,” Collins said.
Although the meeting was open to the public, it was not broadcast on the county’s public-access channel CCGTV in order to help protect the identities of the residents who participated.
One of the participants, who asked that his name not be used, spoke with the Maryland Independent after the session said that he thought the meeting was productive, particularly because Collins and the other commissioners — most of whom stayed afterward to talk with residents — seemed to really grasp the complexity of the issues.
“It was valuable to have all the different opinions,” he said. “Before [the meeting] I didn’t know too much about [project-based vouchers]. I’m very much more informed now.”
“Those folks that said they didn’t like where they live, now they have a choice,” he added. “I think some of them missed that. That’s why I kept my mouth closed, because I wanted to hear everything.”
The people who participate in the housing voucher program defy stereotypes, he said, noting that most of the people who spoke have jobs and are putting their children through school.
In his own case, he was injured at work over a decade ago and had to go on disability. He signed up as a way to maintain his independence.
“I signed up because I didn’t know what my financial situation was going to be, and Section 8 was that safety net that I needed,” he said. “And I’m so glad. I love Section 8, I really do. If it wasn’t for Section 8, I would have to live with family and other folks. This gives me my freedom.”