Shouldering the burden
Jan. 31, 2003
Gazette staff

Lawrence Jackson Jr./The Gazette

Maleesa Collier of District Heights oversees lunch preparation with three of her children, (from left) Antoinette, 3, Timothy, 6, and Ralph, 9. Many housing assistance recipients like Collier have moved to Prince George's County as low-income housing in Washington, D.C. has dried up. The county holds 56 percent of the region's affordable housing

Prince George's County finds itself at the center of region's

demand for affordable housing

LANDOVER -- In the renovation of New East Capitol, a public housing group on East Capitol Street in Northeast Washington, D.C., a total of 709 public housing rental units will be lost.

Wheeler Creek Estates, a few miles southwest in Anacostia, was renovated in the late 1990s, resulting in the loss of 164 public housing rental units.

The loss of so many low-income units in those two developments alone worries officials in neighboring Prince George's County. After all, they say, too many renters displaced from Washington will have no choice but to seek new affordable housing in Prince George's.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) met with Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) on Jan. 16 to discuss the problem. They talked about the problem "extensively," Johnson said, "but we didn't come to any consensus on it."

New East Capitol and Wheeler Creek Estates were renovated using the Hope VI revitalization grant, money awarded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to overhaul dilapidated public housing buildings. Three other developments in Washington have received similar grants, and they, too, are cutting back on low-income units.

As property values rise in Washington, so does rent, which causes more people to relocate to new affordable housing areas.

And Prince George's County is the most inexpensive alternative in the Washington region. The county's average rent for a two-bedroom unit (the standard unit of measure used by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments) is $825 per month, at least $100 cheaper than nearby jurisdictions. Prince George's also has the most affordable housing units, about 56 percent of the region's stock in 2001, according to the council.

Officials contend that the rise in poverty means a host of related social problems, straining the county's social services, public schools and health care systems, and ultimately reducing public safety.

Crossing over

Each month, about 50 families move across the District line and into Prince George's County with federal housing vouchers in hand.

And why not? According to the Council of Governments, Prince George's had 16,816 affordable housing units as of 2001, more than double any other jurisdiction. Washington was second with 7,091; Montgomery County followed with 3,031; Fairfax County, Va., had 1,717; and Arlington County, Va., had 1,268.

Residences are considered affordable if they can be rented by families or individuals making 80 percent or less of the median income in the jurisdiction, according to federal guidelines.

Each area's housing officials compute their own calculations using different tables. Although their numbers do not match the council's, they still show Prince George's with the bulk of the region's affordable housing. That does not include Washington because officials there would not provide affordable housing calculations.

Data from each jurisdiction's housing department -- which includes rentals for single-family, multifamily and government-assisted units -- show slight increases in the amount of affordable housing.

Prince George's stock has remained constant over the past few years, while Fairfax, Arlington and Montgomery have increased. Washington officials would not provide statistics, but they said the District has added units too.

"Citywide, we have leveraged thousands of affordable housing units, and we have added hundreds of affordable housing units in wards 7 and 8 along the D.C.-Prince George's County border during the Williams administration," said Stanley Jackson, director of Washington's Department of Housing and Community Development. "We are finding people moving back to the District as we increase our affordable homeownership stock and quality rental housing."

Walter Searcy of Bladensburg sees things differently.

Searcy is an apartment landlord to about 22 tenants, some of whom are being housed under Section 8, a federal subsidy program that gives vouchers to renters who earn less than 30 percent of the annual median income in an area. Under Section 8, tenants pay a portion of the rent deemed affordable for them, while the government pays the balance.

Tenants cannot get the benefit, however, if the rent is too high.

"Some of my tenants came to the county from the District because they couldn't find any housing there that they qualified for under Section 8," Searcy said.

According to the Council of Governments, the average rent for a two-bedroom unit in Prince George's County is $825 per month. Arlington is the most expensive at $1,304, followed by Alexandria, Va., at $1,278, Fairfax at $1,181, Washington at $989 and Montgomery at $945.

Although real estate officials caution that the numbers are fluid, they say that Prince George's has consistently been more affordable than other jurisdictions. And affordable housing advocates assert that the influx of low-income and poor residents from Washington continues.

For years, former Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry heard quips that the county had become "Ward 9," an extension of the eight councilmanic wards that make up Washington.

"I don't find the Ward 9 jokes amusing," said Curry, who grew up in Prince George's. "It's a self-injurious acknowledgement that this area is racially isolated, and we shouldn't joke about it. Instead, we need to be concerned about dismantling the policies that are causing this harm."

Overcoming obstacles

A 1999 study by the Washington-based Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy found that while the region as a whole enjoyed economic prosperity in the '90s, some areas in the eastern half of the District extending into Prince George's County instead suffered economic distress.

The study found that Washington and Prince George's bore the highest costs -- fiscally and socially -- of housing the region's poorest families and children.

Prince George's faces several obstacles in stemming the flow of low-income residents. One of them is its own property tax cap, TRIM, which bars the county from receiving federal assistance with public housing. Because the federal government no longer owns the affordable units in the county, Curry said, they are not considered public housing -- even though the government built them and the purpose is the same.

Another problem, ironically, is Washington's urban renewal. The gentrification of the Shaw, Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights neighborhoods has forced poor residents to look for more affordable housing elsewhere.

And then there is HUD's Hope VI program.

Hope VI replaces dilapidated public housing with townhouses or garden-style apartments, typically leaving room for fewer occupants and raising rents beyond what some existing tenants can pay. Since 1993, HUD has awarded Washington more than $140 million through the program, rebuilding five housing projects in the eastern half of town.

The grants are designed to lower population density in highly stressed neighborhoods, said LaMarr Slaughter, a public and private housing consultant based in Seat Pleasant. But they have another effect, he said.

"They lower the affordable housing stock, too," said Slaughter, who has managed properties in four of the nation's largest public housing authorities, Chicago, Cleveland, Newport News, Va., and Peoria, Ill.

As cities around the nation put up mixed-use centers to fight the social problems that have become synonymous with public housing, they are replacing only 25 percent to 50 percent of the housing capacity, said Christine Siksa, a policy analyst with the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.

"People are leaving the District and moving to Prince George's County because, when public housing is torn down, it is not being replaced," said Siksa, whose group represents 2,800 of the nation's 3,100 public-housing authorities.

For example, Valley Green in Anacostia had 312 public-housing units before Hope VI. After its transformation into Wheeler Creek Estates, it had only 48 low-income family rental homes and 100 elderly rental apartments -- all subsidized by public funds.

"I don't see a solution in Prince George's County or the District without some serious regional cooperation," said Joyce Ladner, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the District's Financial Control Board from 1995 to 1998. "The changes were good for the city but not for poor people.

"The problems must be dealt with or they will come back and adversely affect the larger population."

The burden

When Washington closed D.C. General Hospital last year, emergency room visits by District residents went up by 1,000 at Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly.

The 290-bed, level 2 trauma center already attends to more than 58,000 patients and more than 2,000 trauma cases every year, drawing from Charles, St. Mary's and Calvert counties, as well as Washington -- and Prince George's.

"Since D.C. General closed, we have seen an increase in patients from the District," said Julie Hoffman, vice president of community relations at the center. "However, we continue to monitor the volume of individuals from the District using our facility because we are in Prince George's County, and we need to meet the needs of our community first."

The increased demands on the hospital center reflect the strain faced by Prince George's social services and health care systems, in addition to schools, as low-income residents keep coming.

Increased crime along the Washington border also contributes to the social disquietude and economic anxiety. And some law-enforcement officials say the crime rate might have further to go.

"I think some of the criminal operations in the far Northeast and Southeast sections of the city have been transplanted to Prince George's County," said county Public Safety Director Fred Thomas, who was Washington's police chief from 1992 to 1995.

State's Attorney Glenn Ivey, who was a District prosecutor in the early '90s, said that sometimes families who move from Washington to Prince George's are rejoined by family members who are getting out of prison in Washington. The former inmates then create similar problems in the county.

According to law-enforcement sources, the number of prisoners due to rejoin family in the county will jump in the next few years. "It's not new," Ivey said. "I just think it's going to be accelerated."

Metropolitan Police Department Assistant Chief Jose Acosta, who is in charge of the area east of the Anacostia River, said he has never seen statistical proof that District residents have caused more problems in Prince George's.

"They could be moving anywhere," he said, "to other parts of the city or to other counties."

But Kay Jackson, a resident of Fort Washington for more than nine years, said she has seen the social damage first-hand.

Jackson said the community is not against newcomers per se, but some new residents have brought urban problems into a suburban environment. Unsupervised teens often skip school and hang out on the streets, she said, and they cause even more trouble when their friends from Washington join them.

She helped to organize a community rally in 2001 to urge the General Assembly to tighten regulations on juveniles and improve the way the county screens new applicants for subsidized housing.

"Their environment follows them," Jackson said. "That is truly a problem."

A sharp rise in rental assistance applications by former District residents was cut off in the early '90s when Prince George's started requiring criminal background checks, said Mary Lou McDonough, deputy director of the county branch of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

Still, people who engage in criminal activity are usually transient, Thomas said, so separating District residents from Prince George's residents is not always helpful. At some point, he said, crime problems have to be combated by local leaders.

Prince George's Police Chief Gerald Wilson said he is committed to dealing with Inner Beltway crime as a "homegrown" problem, but he will also work with District police on a permanent solution.

"We don't operate in a vacuum," Wilson said. "Many of the issues, many of the solutions are larger than the police department. In taking a longer view, you have to coordinate with other members of society as well as with law enforcement."

A cry for help

Accordingly, the county with 56 percent of the Washington area's affordable housing says neighboring jurisdictions must take on their share of the burden.

"No single jurisdiction can solve this problem," said Prince George's County Council Chairman Peter A. Shapiro (D-Dist. 2) of Brentwood, who represents several Inner Beltway communities. "This is a regional problem that requires a regional response."

Although housing officials in other jurisdictions say they never intended for Prince George's to become saddled with the bulk of the region's affordable housing, they acknowledge that it has been difficult to create units of their own.

Fairfax is a prime example.

"Fairfax County is a high-cost area," said John Callaghan, former acting public affairs director of Fairfax's Department of Housing and Community Development. "How do you get private owners to reduce rents below the market?"

Those market forces have made it difficult for the Washington Area Housing Partnership, a division of the Council of Governments, to meet its mission of distributing affordable housing more equitably across the region, said Kerry Donley, the partnership's chairman and mayor of Alexandria.

"The reality is that our political landscape is different in Virginia than in D.C. or Prince George's," Donley said.

In addition, said partnership spokesman David Sylvester, the families who work with the group to find affordable housing simply resist leaving familiar areas.

"People have their comfort zones, and they migrate to where their friends or family are," Callaghan said.

Some counties are strengthening their current policies on their own. Montgomery County's Moderately Priced Dwelling Units program -- which Fairfax has adopted -- mandates that a certain number of new homes be developed as affordable housing units.

Montgomery also has established a $15.5 million trust fund that provides loans and incentives to developers willing to build more affordable housing.

Northern Virginia housing officials are working on a comprehensive housing partnership that would establish joint planning for more affordable housing in "edge communities," particularly around U.S. Route 1 in Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax, Donley said.

"We do a heck of a lot," said Donley, who bristles at criticism that Northern Virginia is not doing its share. "... I think the goal should be to work together [rather] than enter in a squabble of who's doing more."

It is still arguable whether other jurisdictions' efforts will help Prince George's given that their average rents are more expensive. Low- and middle-income residents and those with Section 8 vouchers can simply get more for their money in Prince George's.

Donley said the WAHP is trying to establish a $20 million regional housing fund in five years. Jalal Greene, director of Prince George's Department of Housing and Community Development, said the regional fund is a good idea, but he cautions against placing too much hope in the efforts.

"It comes down to implementation," he said, pointing out that many good ideas fall through.

Other ideas are in abundance. Prince George's leaders have suggested forcing regional economic policy changes through the legislature and promoting economic development along its border with Washington.

County politicians also could pass laws that restrict or limit the type of affordable housing along the border, but Shapiro objects.

"The logical solution is to build up borders and keep them out?" Shapiro asked. "That's ludicrous. Our arms are open."

Amid all the concern, Shapiro sounded a note of optimism. The region has been learning to cooperate on difficult issues since the terrorist attacks, he said, and it can cooperate on this one, too.