As a senior information specialist working for the Department of Health and Human Services, Christina Bradshaw has what a housing official called a “good job.”
Yet, Bradshaw said after a divorce she faced the choice of living in a community she could afford or one that was a good environment for her three kids.
Bradshaw wanted to continue living in the house she rents in Silver Spring, a challenge given that in Maryland the average hourly wage needed to pay for a modest two-bedroom apartment is $24.76. That's the fourth-highest figure in the nation, behind Hawaii, the District of Columbia (at $28.10) and California, according to “Out of Reach 2011,” the National Low Income Housing Coalition's latest report on obstacles that low-wage workers face in their search for housing.
In the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, which includes the suburbs, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's calculations show renters in many nearby counties also need to make about $28 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
Even though Bradshaw's salary was too high to receive social services, she said it was low by Montgomery County standards where, according to HUD, the annual median income is more than $106,000 per year. Living in such an expensive place, Bradshaw said, her children “had to do without quite a bit.”
“I was juggling,” she said. “One month I could pay the rent on time, and one month I could pay the utilities on time.”
If Bradshaw, with her good job, was having trouble, imagine what faces Maryland's lowest-paid workers. The burden of keeping a roof overhead is heavier in Maryland than almost anywhere in the mainland U.S.
On average, it takes 3.4 full-time jobs at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour to afford rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Free State, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition report.
That ties Maryland with New York and New Jersey for the dubious distinction of least-affordable states this side of Hawaii, where 4.3 minimum-wage jobs are needed for decent housing, regarded as a key to building stable lives and communities.
But Maryland is the only state with two metropolitan areas — Washington, D.C., and Baltimore — where surveys showed rents increased more than 5 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to a study by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.
In neighboring Washington, as in Maryland, affording fair-market rent for a modest two-bedroom apartment takes 3.4 minimum-wage jobs, but the District of Columbia and 16 states, unlike Maryland, have set a higher wage floor than the $7.25 federal minimum.
Affordability is based on the assumption, used by most federal housing programs, that no more than 30 percent of income should be spent on shelter.
With housing costs increasing faster than wages for many workers in Maryland, more are seeking assistance, including some unexpected applicants, like Bradshaw.
One source of relief is a Housing Choice, also known as a Section 8, voucher funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. To qualify, an applicant's income may not exceed half of whichever is higher: the area median or the state nonmetropolitan-area median income.
But under federal law, 75 percent of vouchers must go to those whose income is 30 percent or less of the median.
Bradshaw qualified and was fortunate to have her name drawn from thousands of Montgomery residents who were waiting for a voucher from the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County.
HOC staff helped her persuade her landlord to participate in the subsidy program, which enabled her to stay in her house by reducing her rent by $800 per month.
“Now everybody can get a pair of shoes at the [right] time,” she said. The HOC also helped her with plans to further her education and, eventually, buy her own home.
“I don't fit the stereotype — I'm moving through the system,” she said.
Although applicants' circumstances and need levels vary, almost all who seek a housing voucher share a long wait — sometimes years.
And more are waiting in the wake of foreclosures that followed the 2007 recession, continued high unemployment, tightened qualifications for home mortgages and a slow economic recovery. Those conditions have turned many would-be homeowners into renters at the same time that demand for rental units, and rents, have increased.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, more than half of American renters in 2009 were living in housing they could not afford, based on the housing cost not exceeding 30 percent of income.
Anne Arundel crunch
In Anne Arundel County, where the hourly wage required to rent a two-bedroom apartment climbed to $24.29 this year, vacancies in public housing are hard to come by, so vouchers the county's Housing Commission controls are much sought after, said commission Chief Executive Officer Clifton C. Martin.
About 8,100 residents are on a waiting list for one of 1,620 vouchers, Martin said. In 2007, 5,600 residents were on the waiting list for 1,500 vouchers.
Still, Martin said he is encouraged that new landlords are coming into the program, making it easier for voucher-holders to find a home.
“What they like is that we pay most of the rent, and it's deposited automatically — that's a big incentive,” Martin said.
What has not helped, he said, is uncertainty in the federal budget. Last month, HUD sent about $300,000 less in rent subsidy funds to his agency, leaving the county's Housing Commission to dip into its reserve fund to cover rent payments, Martin said.
In February, 10 Maryland counties — Garrett, Allegany, Frederick, Caroline, Kent, Talbot, Dorchester, Wicomico, Worcester and Somerset — stopped reissuing Housing Choice vouchers that had been turned in because it appeared that HUD was going to reduce funding.
Maryland's Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers those counties' programs but subcontracts operations to local agencies, ordered the freeze because federal funding for 2011 was uncertain until June 15.
Now voucher programs for those counties are operating at a deficit, but the state hopes to break even by Dec. 31, said Gary A. Markowski, DHCD's deputy director of multifamily housing.
The long-awaited congressional agreement to address the national debt has done little to raise hopes among advocates for affordable housing.
“I think the debt deal will result in fewer resources for things like voucher programs,” said Linda Couch, senior vice president for policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
In 2008, when Montgomery County last reopened its voucher waiting list — a move undertaken when outdated contact information or other factors indicate the roster needs updating — 30 percent more applicants sought vouchers than when the list opened in 2006.
About 15,000 households are on the waiting list for roughly 6,000 vouchers controlled by the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County.
About 10,000 families are on the waiting list for 1,564 public housing units that Montgomery's HOC owns. The HOC also owns about 5,500 affordable units in Montgomery, which it makes available through other programs.
Proposed reductions in fees that HUD pays public housing agencies for administering the Housing Choice vouchers could undermine the work that must be done to get vouchers out the door, said Tedi S. Osias, director of legislative and public affairs for Montgomery's HOC.
“If we have to reduce staff, one consequence could be we'll be able to serve fewer clients,” Osias said.
Some multi-family property owners have units reserved for Section 8-qualified tenants through an arrangement with HUD that backs a loan on the building. In those project-based programs, tenants apply through the landlord.
Maryland households whose income is 40 percent below the highest eligibility level for a Housing Choice voucher can apply for the state's Rental Allowance Program if they are homeless, about to become homeless or need emergency shelter. That program now is helping 300 Maryland households pay for a room, apartment or other transitional housing, Markowski said.
Some qualified applicants who still are waiting for housing assistance are “doubling up” living with family, friends or roommates, local housing agency officials said. Others are living in shelters.
In Allegany County, where the housing stock is older and less expensive than in most of Maryland, the hourly wage a worker must earn to afford a two-bedroom apartment is $11.60 — the lowest in the state. However, more than 16 percent of the county's households have incomes below the federal poverty line, said Courtney Thomas, executive director of the Allegany County Human Resources Development Commission.
“So even though housing is more affordable, it may still be unachievable for many of our residents,” Thomas said.
“I have people on the waiting list [for Housing Choice vouchers] that have been there since 2007 — in the case of several I know,” said Joyce Sine, who administers the program in Allegany.
To the west in Garrett County, where vacation properties at Deep Creek Lake raise average rental rates, the $12.56 hourly wage needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment is almost a dollar higher.
Applicants for one of 180 Housing Choice vouchers managed by the Garrett County Community Action Committee wait an average of 18 months, said Duane Yoder, the committee's president.
About 210 applicants are waiting now — typically while living with relatives or in substandard trailer homes.
But since 2001, the number of homeless people in the county has at least doubled to 80 or 90, Yoder said.
“The causes are almost entirely economic” in Garrett, where there are fewer divorces and fewer seeking assistance because of mental illness, Yoder said.