County moves ahead on housing initiatives

House for Rent Sign

County staff updated the Board of Charles County Commissioners on Tuesday on plans to reopen the Housing Choice Voucher waiting list for the first time in eight years and to develop a comprehensive licensing program for rental properties to ensure the county has the ability to enforce minimum health and safety standards.

The administration of Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) has identified both items as being part of its goals and objectives that address quality of life issues in the county.

Charles County’s waiting list for residents who are eligible to receive federal housing assistance has been closed to new applicants since 2012. County housing authority chief Rita Wood explained that the federal Housing and Urban Development department recommends that counties close their lists if the wait list exceeds two years.

“We had over 4,000 applications on the list at that time when we closed it,” Wood told the commissioners during Tuesday’s virtual open session. “Since 2012 … we’ve gone through [and] updated those, we’ve called people as necessary to enroll them on the program, and as a result, right now we have approximately 200 applications left today.”

Wood explained that the county has also continued accepting voucher referrals for county residents who are transitioning out of a homeless shelters.

As a result, Wood said, the county will soon be ready to accept new housing voucher applications via online. The housing authority is recommending a one-week open period for applications, which will be selected by lottery. Preference will be given to applicants who are elderly, disabled, or veterans.

The county housing authority plans to precede the weeklong open period with a comprehensive outreach program that will include local partner nonprofits and other county agencies, the county’s homeless and emergency shelter committee, and other means. The county’s community services department, the veterans affairs commission, and others have offered to help their clients navigate the online application system.

Charles County Department of Community Services Director Dina Barclay told the commissioners that she had hoped to be able to open the application window in April, but they had to postpone due to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now, they’re looking at opening up the lottery in late June, before the Independence Day holiday.

Barclay told the commissioners that she believed the lottery system will help the county better manage the list so that it won’t become full to the point of extended closure again.

“We want to try to make sure this is a controlled process, and the method that we’re using, which has been used in many other places, will help us to do that,” Barclay said. “We’ll be able to continuously plan on reopening the list and giving people an opportunity periodically rather than having to wait seven or eight years in between.”

During Tuesday’s open session, the commissioners also heard from associate county attorney Danielle Mitchell and code official Don Litten with an update from the county’s rental housing work group, which had been established last October to develop recommendations for the commissioners on ways to “improve the quality and livability of residential properties offered for lease in the County” through the development of enforceable property standards and greater tenant protections.

Litten told the commissioners that last year, the number of complaints submitted to the codes, permits, and inspections department from tenants concerned about unsafe living conditions spiked from an average of 15-20 per year to around 60.

The county was able to address around half of the complaints through existing code provisions, Litten said, but those were mostly external “eyesore” issues. Issues with electrical wiring, plumbing, and non-permitted modifications to structures are not addressed by the current code.

“If we receive a complaint, we’re obligated to investigate, and if there is a … life safety hazard of some kind, we have the ability to — with the rental stuff it gets a little fuzzy, but we have the ability to require that … that condition be brought into compliance,” Litten said. “[There is] a lot of gray area with the property maintenance code that we really have a hard time really enforcing certain aspects of some of these complaints that are coming in.”

Furthermore, enforcement under the current code is slow and cumbersome, requiring multiple rounds of notices to property owners followed by time in court.

“Having a license program in place and having the threat of suspension or revocation of the license is a powerful tool for enforcement,” Litten said. “We see that with … trade contractors and … home builders, home improvement contractors, if they know that … some of their actions may be causing damage to their license and that their license has the potential to be revoked, usually compliance comes pretty quick.”

“A potential licensing program would allow inspectors consistent access inside these units, and so we wouldn’t have to rely on complaints as the only way to access a property,” Litten said.

Mitchell said that seven of Maryland’s 24 counties have countywide licensing requirements, while an additional six counties include one or more municipalities that have their own regulations. Both Indian Head and La Plata include chapters on rental licensing and regulation in their codes.

During their presentation, Litten and Mitchell fielded several rounds of questions by District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D), District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D), and District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) on what a licensing program would include. Stewart inquired about the possibility of homeowner tax credits, while Coates raised a question about displacement during renovation and Bowling asked about the potential impacts on the county’s Amish residents.

Mitchell pointed out that in developing rental property inspection regulations, one of the biggest hurdles that the county would have to address is the lack of legal titles for many rural properties, which have been handed down within families through the generations without being recorded in the county’s property tax rolls.

Charles County has between 12,000 and 15,000 rental properties. A complete and up-to-date inventory of all rental properties in the county would also be a prerequisite for any attempt to develop a comprehensive affordable housing program, Mitchell said.

Affordable housing was a major campaign issue during the 2018 elections in the county. A study by the American Planning Association released last year found that fully one-third of Charles County households spend at least 30 percent of their gross annual income on rent or mortgages. A survey conducted two years ago by the Charles County Charitable Trust found that the lack of affordable housing in the county was the biggesst concern among local nonprofits that provide programs and services to residents.

The county’s planning and growth management department estimates that Charles County has just under 500 acres of land around Waldorf that can be used for the construction of affordable housing.

In order to ensure that the county commissioners have time to approve a rental code change proposal and include it in their 2021 state legislative package, which typically starts being crafting in August, Mitchell and Litten agreed to return to the commissioners with answers to their questions around the middle of summer. TLR will be following both this proposal and the expected reopening of the housing voucher rolls as they move forward.