By Ovetta Wiggins
Less than a year after Prince George’s County lost millions in federal housing aid, a report is calling on the next county executive to revamp the housing department by conducting a national search for a director, setting up a local trust fund for housing needs and offering more rental housing.
“One of the most important actions is for the county executive to put in place a highly qualified leader for this department, given all the problems this agency has had in the past,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, one of the authors of the “Building Stronger Communities” report.
The analysis, which was released Wednesday by the coalition and the Partnership for Renewal in Southern and Central Maryland (PRISCM), offers a sobering picture of the housing situation in Prince George’s.
Nearly half of the county’s residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, an amount considered unaffordable by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the report says. The county counted 45,300 troubled home loans according to an Urban Institute report cited in the analysis, and about 40 percent of renters cannot afford the median monthly rent of $1,131, the report says.
The authors said the county Department of Housing and Community Development has been “ill-equipped” to handle the housing crisis because it “lacks leadership.”
But Jim Keary, a spokesman for Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), said the report appears to be based on old data.
He said that reforms have been implemented in the agency and that Johnson fired the former director, Thomas Thompson, in June 2008. James Johnson was appointed the acting director.
Keary said the county is properly dispensing money given by the federal government to address the county’s foreclosure crisis. Last week, Prince George’s provided assistance to 600 families through its Down Payment on Your Dream program, which is funded by the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The Neighborhood Stabilization Program is designed to shore up areas hit hard by foreclosures. Prince George’s has the highest number of foreclosures in Maryland.
Despite that investment, a PRISCM official said the county still needs a new director.
“We need someone who is going to bring better housing options and stabilize the living situation in the county,” said the Rev. Michael Turner, president of PRISCM and pastor of Miracle Center of Faith Missionary Baptist Church in Capitol Heights.
The analysis comes on the heels of reports about problems in administering federal money earmarked for affordable housing. In January, the county had to return $2 million that federal housing officials had granted for affordable housing projects because the county didn’t spend the money within a five-year period. And in October 2008, the county nearly lost $5 million in HUD’s HOME Investment Partnerships Program.
Coalition and PRISCM officials said they know that Rushern L. Baker III, who won the Democratic nomination for county executive last month, has a host of challenges facing him when he takes office in December, including improving education, expanding commercial development and lowering crime. But they hope that housing will be at the forefront.
Baker and his transition team will review the report, said James Adams, a spokesman for Baker. The county’s overwhelming Democratic majority makes the de facto general election.
The report also recommends that the new director assess the housing department to “ensure that previous weaknesses that led to underperformance are corrected.”
It also suggests that more quality rental housing be made available to low-income families. “While homeownership is a desirable goal, the high foreclosure rate shows that homeownership is not always the best housing option,” the report says.
The Coalition for Smarter Growth and PRISCM also want the county to provide more foreclosure-prevention counseling, implement a law similar to one in the District that allows tenants to buy their building if it is offered for sale and develop a dedicated source of local funding for affordable housing.
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