Charles County homeowners whose salaries fall below or between 50% to 80% of the area median income will get an early Christmas present this year thanks to a housing preservation grant worth more than $50,000, courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development agency.

The grant will enable qualifying residents to receive critical home improvements as part of an effort to ensure property and safety standards are met.

The news was jointly announced Nov. 15 in a press release from Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), as well as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th). Charles County will offer grants and low-interest loans, or a combination of the two, needed for home repairs or modernization efforts. Eligible homeowners that would mostly benefit from this grant include those in USDA-approved rural development areas.

Cardin said the home improvement projects funded by this grant will directly improve living conditions for local residents.

“Given the lack of affordable housing options, it is critical that low-income families can afford to make necessary fixes, not least to avoid violations of property and safety standards,” Cardin said in the press release. “I will continue to advocate for policies to make housing more affordable for all Marylanders.”

Van Hollen, who serves on both the budget and appropriations committees in the Senate, assured that he will also continue to help “expand economic opportunity and housing security” across Maryland. He said “home repairs can break the bank,” especially for those families that are “struggling to make ends meet.”

“These federal funds will help lower-income residents of Charles County make critical home improvements,” said Van Hollen, “to ensure the safety and security of their homes.”

During a phone interview on Monday, Charles County Housing Authority Chief Rita Wood told the Maryland Independent that in addition to the USDA’s grant, the county will be contributing $20,000 toward home repairs for a minimum grand total of $70,000.

Besides bringing low-income households “up to acceptable standards for livability,” Wood said “the really great thing” about this grant program is that the funds “do not have to be repaid.”

“Typically, we do loan programs to help low- and moderate-income households with home repairs that they need. This [USDA grant] is just another avenue and another source of funds that will help households in need of home repairs,” she said, emphasizing that the funds must be used toward necessary repairs and not for cosmetic purposes. “We just know that we have a great need here so when we saw the grant opportunity, we decided to apply. Fortunately, we were awarded the funds.”

According to the USDA Rural Development’s website, the housing preservation grants program in Maryland “provides grants to sponsoring organizations for the repair or rehabilitation of housing owned, or occupied, by low- and very-low-income rural citizens.” Eligible applicant — which include nonprofit organizations, federally recognized tribes and most state and local governmental entities — “must have the necessary background and experience with proven ability to perform” repairs and rehabilitations specially designated for low-income households. In addition, quarterly progress reports and a final audit of the applicant’s accomplishments are required.

“We’ll take applications up until the funds are all committed,” Wood said. “And then if people are still interested after that time, we’ll maintain a waiting list. But there are income limits based on household size — we’re focusing initially on very-low-income households. … We know the need is there.”

Areas that may be served include rural areas and towns, with 20,000 or fewer people, as well as federally recognized tribal lands. Eligible expenses include repairing or replacing electrical wiring, foundations, roofs, insulation, heating systems, water/waste disposal systems, handicap accessibility features, labor and materials and administrative expenses.

USDA Rural Development believes that “helping people stay in their own home and keep it in good repair” is vital, which ultimately benefits the “many kinds of businesses that support the local economy.” But most importantly, homeownership is what “helps families and individuals build savings over time” while also strengthening communities, according to the website.

“With this being a grant, it will be able to help those people, even in greater need, who couldn’t be approved for a loan program due to credit issues. The grant will be a really great resource for them,” Wood said. “It’s helping homeowners who already own their own home. I’m not sure how it might address the affordability issue but certainly does address the livability issue of homes in the area.”

Hoyer said “improving access to affordable housing for families in local communities is a critically important issue” for the congressional delegation. He is pleased that the federal funds will help make Charles County a better community at large.

“As long as the households meet the eligibility requirements, it could be a single-person household or a larger household,” said Wood. “There’s no requirement or restriction on that.”

The county is hoping to help approximately seven households in eligible service areas. Based on experiences with other similar programs, Wood said there is more of a need among elderly individuals.

“To be able to have these grant funds available around the holidays is especially good for homeowners who are in need of a nicer house that they otherwise wouldn’t have had,” she said. “We see a lot of need from single senior citizens. We expect that they will reach out to us about this grant opportunity.”

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