Wednesday, July 9, 2008

HOC launches first ‘customer service’ centers in nation

Cross-trained counselors to offer range of assistance in push to improve county’s affordable housing forecast

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As a new report shows the county’s shortage of affordable housing is expected to grow 24 percent by 2030 and the land available for new housing is dwindling, the agency responsible for helping residents in need locate and secure homes is reaching outside its normal operation to become more accessible, user friendly – and a national model.

Montgomery County’s Housing Opportunities Commission is opening two new customer service centers to provide services previously available only at the commission office in Kensington. The first opened May 1 in Gaithersburg, aimed at serving the upcounty. A second downcounty office is expected to open in Silver Spring next month, said HOC spokeswoman Susan Yancy.

And in addition to HOC services like housing voucher assistance, the new centers will also allow one-stop shopping for previously scattered social services, such as emergency financial services or help with utility bills. Cross-trained teams of housing counselors and program specialists will be on hand to help clients get what they need, Yancy said.

‘‘We’re the first housing authority in the country to do this,” said Les Kaplan, HOC director. He predicted the change will make life easier for clients with limited or no transportation who currently can access the Kensington office only through a series of bus routes.

‘‘Most of our clients work in low-paying jobs with no benefits, and they would wind up having to spend a day in order to get things done,” Kaplan said. The commission hopes the new centers will make it easier for clients to get the help they need.

HOC currently serves about 20,000 county families, half of whom earn $16,000 a year or less, said Kaplan, noting that the number of families in need is on the rise.

However, because commission funding comes from limited federal housing grants, the number of residents HOC is able to help can’t grow, even as the need does, said Tedi Osias, another HOC spokeswoman. The commission’s popular housing choice voucher program, which provides rental subsidies to 5,800 low-income families through a lottery system, nearly doubled its registration rolls in its first two years.

When the program launched in 2004, 10,000 households signed up in five days, Kaplan said. In 2006, about 18,000 families registered.

‘‘In 2008, we don’t know how many there will be,” Kaplan said.

New data from county planners paints a worrisome picture.

According to a new analysis of housing presented to the Planning Board on Thursday, about 82 percent of the land available for housing in Montgomery County has been built on. Development in the pipeline would bring that total up to 91 percent.

Without changes in land use policy, a current shortage of nearly 50,000 affordable housing units will grow to an estimated 62,000 by 2030, when the county population is expected to hit 1.2 million, according to the report, which is a guiding document for future county land use.

The report, titled ‘‘Analysis of the Supply and Demand for Housing,” points to a need for more multi-family housing and rental options. It suggests rethinking homeownership as a goal — and rezoning growth areas for higher density to allow more affordable housing opportunities.

‘‘We were very pleased with it,” Scott Reilly, chief operating officer for the county Department of Housing and Community Affairs, said of the report. ‘‘The planning staff was very analytical in its analysis. They crunched a lot of numbers, created a lot of data, and the information ... mirrored ours very closely.”

Reilly serves on the county’s affordable housing task force, which made recommendations to County Executive Isiah Leggett two weeks ago, including expanding the next two fiscal year budgets by $25 million in bonds for affordable housing preservation and construction. The task force is now reviewing all the county’s zoning text amendments and master plans — and has asked the Planning Board to develop affordable housing targets for each master plan area.

Existing policies aimed at encouraging affordable housing development and providing assistance to at-risk groups are ‘‘unlikely to meet the scale of need,” the housing report said.

By 2030, households currently earning $90,000 to $120,000 will see less housing availability as energy and living costs rise and more affluent households choose less-expensive homes, the report said. Demand will keep housing prices hard to reach for lower-income and moderate-income families as credit availability tightens.

Learn more

Read ‘‘Analysis of the Supply and Demand for Housing” at www.montgomeryplanningboard.com. Click on ‘‘past meeting” archives and see the July 3 agenda, item 8.

Get help

The HOC Gaithersburg Customer Service Center is located at 101 Lakeforest Blvd., Suite 200, in Gaithersburg. The phone is 240-773-9009.