Housing authority hears rent hike concerns
CENTREVILLE — Crammed inside an office room in a multi-use facility in Centreville were some of Queen Anne’s County’s elderly population, gathered to speak in opposition Monday evening, Oct. 23, to a proposed rent increase to Queen Anne’s County Housing Authority properties.
The room, home to the Housing Authority, which is not part of the county government after a departure from the system in 2012, had about 10 seats available for meeting attendees to sit in. The rest of the 30-plus seniors stood in the hallway waiting for their chance to speak.
Each person had two minutes to address the Housing Authority Board of Directors to express their concerns about the proposed rent increase and Rent Increase Hardship Policy. When all was said and done, at least 30 people had spoken in opposition.
After the public comment period, the Housing Authority tabled the Rent Increase Hardship Policy agenda item to allow time to digest the public’s concerns and further consider the proposal.
Speaker after speaker told stories about how living in their respective Housing Authority-run home — Terrapin Grove, Foxxtown and Grasonville Terrace, Fisher Manor, Riverside Estates, Safe Haven Manor — began well but slowly went down hill.
Between the vacant rooms at the sites to alleged poor maintenance of the facilities over the years, residents were livid, distraught and simply heartbroken, as one resident said, at the authority’s proposed rent increase.
Residents repeatedly told the authority they understood rent increases would be necessary and expected, but expressed displeasure and shock at the sudden jump their monthly bills would take.
Pat Baker, a Terrapin Grove resident, said a $20 or $25 rent increase would be understandable, but the $70 to $90 increase that was proposed, depending on the size of the room, was too much. She asked the board members, as many other speakers did, if she should cut medication or food out of her budget as the rent increase would make it too difficult to pay for those necessities.
Baker said she worked all of her life to become a senior and live in the “golden years,” but “I’m still looking.”
Betty Robinson of Grasonville Terrace, who has lived there since 2000, said the letter the Housing Authority sent its residents informing them of the Dec. 1 rate increase, for some $70 per month, for others, $90, was scary.
“This is an impossible situation for me,” Robinson said.
Shirley Johnson, a Terrapin Grove resident since the day the facility opened, said she was “disgusted” with the proposal. Having survived cancer, Johnson went on to explain how expensive her health insurance and medications were.
No wiggle room in their personal budgets, learning to live with less and threats of homelessness were some of the concerns told to the authority.
Tyler Johnson, a Grasonville Terrace resident, said he didn’t understand how the authority could justify the rent increase after years of diminished maintenance and services. Johnson spoke about mold in rentals that wasn’t taken care of for more than a year and the difficulty getting someone to clean the gutters.
He said the rent checks weren’t cashed until the middle of the month, questioning why they did it so late if they were tight on money as Jeremy White, Housing Authority executive director, said.
“You don’t do anything to deserve this money,” Johnson said.
Bonnie Walter of Terrapin Grove, also a member of the Queen Anne’s County Aging Commission, asked the authority to share the formula they used to determine the exact rate increases. She said many people were still filling out the Hardship request forms, which would defer half the proposed monthly rent increase to Dec. 1, 2018 when residents would then have to pay the full amount per month.
Catherine Willis, director of the Department of Community Services, requested the authority extend the Hardship request application date as her office, as well as other county staff, have worked with residents to get the forms completed.
Willis said she mirrored the statements of all the speakers as she is an advocate for the elderly. She said she agreed with incremental increases to the rent following policies and procedures set forth by the state.
White told the attendees the rent increase was necessary due to lost revenue and various budget cuts from local, state and federal agencies. He said the quality of the properties were diminishing and needed to have revenue to pay for upgrades.
The list Walter was reading from raised questions about lost income due to the Housing Authority not filling vacant rooms, projected timelines for maintenance repairs, why multiple senior
properties lacked an AED machine and why no visual fire extinguishers were present at certain facilities.
White asked for the list and called many of the statements “slanderous.” After the public comment period ended at about 5:30 p.m., Walter asked for her paper back from White, which he initially refused until board Chairman James Hynson requested he make a copy.
White asked an assistant taking meeting notes to call the police on Walter. When asked about the incident, White said “no comment.” No law enforcement officers arrived at the meeting.
James Holley, a Housing Authority board member, said the increase wasn’t proposed for no reason. As time goes on, he said, things get more expensive. What a plumber used to charge to assess and service a bathroom has gone up, as well as the parts used to make the repairs possible, he said.
Holley said the dollar bill is shrinking, not growing, and because maintenance and operation costs are increased, their revenue stream needed to as well.
Tonya Brown Johnson, a Housing Authority board member, said just because she was sitting at the table didn’t mean she wasn’t “in the same boat as a lot of y’all,” in terms of worrying about making bill payments. She said the cares and concerns expressed during the meeting would be taken to heart.
In response to the facility maintenance, Brown Johnson said residents began seeing changes to the quality after the county and the authority split.
Board member Richard Cira said during the public comments all the concerns were valid and have given a cause for concern and passion. He said it frightened him that the board looked like it was pushing policies forward and suggested reconvening to further discuss the topic.
Cira said the board has a fiduciary responsibility to manage the money and to come up with answers for the lost revenue over the years.
White, who has been the executive director less than two years, said the authority was “aggressively changing” as it had fallen behind in previous years. He said his first year as executive director was about assessing the program entirely, and now it’s time to change a lot of things to better run the organization.
He said it is in a transitional period now with more changes to be expected.
A date has yet to be determined for another Hardship Policy discussion. Board members said the meeting will take place in the next few weeks.
Some of what added to the tension and electricity to the meeting was the lack of space to accommodate all the interested speakers. With only a few handfuls of people able to fit in the meeting room, the rest of the senior citizens were forced to stand in the hallway as extra chairs were not available. Part way through the meeting in order to allow everyone a chance to speak, people in the hallway switched spots with people in the meeting room.
County Commissioner Mark Anderson, liaison to the Housing Authority, said the space problem could have easily been solved if the authority had taken up the county’s suggestion to hold the meeting at Terrapin Grove later in the week to accommodate more people. He said he made that request because he knew the turnout would be large, and that people would have difficulty hearing and getting answers to their questions.
He said this wasn’t the best place or way to conduct the meeting.
County Commissioner Steve Wilson, who attended the meeting, said he was opposed to the increase. “Do not raise the rent on people with fixed incomes,” Wilson said.
For more information about the Housing Authority, visit www.qacha.org.
Follow Mike Davis on Twitter: @mike_kibaytimes.
Queen Anne’s County Housing Authority Executive Directory Jeremy White, standing left, begins a meeting at its building in Centreville Monday evening. Residents came out in numbers to oppose a proposed rent increase.