WASHINGTON – For 17 years, Shirley Warnick worked at a syrup plant in rural Garrett County. She had to quit her job when the woman who gave her a ride to work moved away.
After quitting, she was forced to go on welfare to support her son. A rural housing subsidy helped her get back on her feet while she worked part-time at a nursing home.
“I wouldn’t go back to welfare for nothing,” Warnick said. “Having rental assistance helped me get a job.”
On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee cut $11.5 million from the Rural Multifamily Housing Program to help offset the Clinton administration’s request for $7 billion in disaster relief spending. The House has not yet acted on the measure.
Rural housing advocates say losing the program would be a major setback. “There will be no more low-income rental housing built in small communities across the country,” said Bob Rapoza, executive secretary for the National Rural Housing Coalition.
Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M., chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, supported the cuts because the program’s spending authority expired last year when the farm bill failed to pass, said spokeswoman Sherry Kiesling.
“The rationale of the subcommittee is that since the money had never been reauthorized, they couldn’t spend it,” Kiesling said.
Funds were also cut back sharply last year, after reports that developers were abusing the system, said John Ryan, a legislative aide for Skeen.
In several instances, developers built apartments in communities with no roads or shopping nearby and later had problems attracting tenants. In others, they prepaid their loans so they could replace low-income tenants with higher paying ones, Ryan said.
“Their plans benefitted the developer more than the community,” he said.
Kiesling said Skeen still supports the program in theory, but feels it needs to be “cleaned up significantly.”
The Rural Multifamily Housing Program provides loans to developers to build, repair and operate low-income housing projects in rural areas.
The average income for a family receiving rural rental assistance is $7,000, said Joseph O’Neill, head of the Maryland office of Rural Housing and Community Development. The amount of assistance varies depending on need.
The program funds construction of about 140 housing units a year throughout Maryland, O’Neill said.
Last year, the state received $6 million in program funds. This year, approved funds dropped to $1.75 million, O’Neill said, but the funds were cut before they could be spent.
“This stops production in our community for rental housing altogether,” said Dwayne Yoder, executive director of the Garrett County Community Action Committee. “We’re trying to redirect some of our requests to the state, but everyone is doing that. They’re way oversubscribed.”
Yoder said in the last two years Garrett County has developed 90 units using the funds. “We have made some major inroads in the production of affordable housing,” he said.
But if the funds aren’t reappropriated, families who have been waiting for housing won’t get it, Yoder said. There are 70 families on a waiting list for an apartment complex completed two years ago in Mountain Lake Park.
Kimberly Lambert, who lives in Oakland in Garrett County, has been on a waiting list for assistance for three years. She said she receives welfare payments to help support her four children.
Lambert said she has $100 left over after paying her rent each month.
“If I could get rental assistance, it would help out a whole lot,” she said. “I could get a job and possibly a car and a license.”
Warnick said when she first received aid, it covered her entire rent. As her income rose, so did her payments.
She now pays all but $80 of her $295 monthly rent and is planning to move into a house next month.
“I can’t wait,” she said. “I’ve already started packing.”
Yoder said if the program remains in place, within four or five years the affordable housing problem in Garrett County could be solved.
Some members of Congress and housing activists have not given up on the program.
Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, has cosponsored a bill to restore funding with two Republican senators, Alfonse D’Amato of New York and Kit Bond of Missouri. “He supports the rural housing program,” said Sarbanes spokesman Bill Toohey, “and would resist every step to undermine it.” -30-