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By SOPHIE PETIT
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (February 23, 2012) -- Families with young children need to earn nearly $55,000 a year to make ends meet in St. Mary's County, a new study says.
That's up 30 percent over a decade ago, and the number of families seeking help is rising sharply -- due in large part to soaring housing costs and a growing wage gap, according to local agencies.
The waiting list at the Housing Authority of St. Mary's has grown to 5,500 people, officials say.
"It is now up to five years' waiting on the list before your name gets to the top," said Sandra Johnson, resource/service coordinator, who has worked at the Housing Authority of St. Mary's County for more than 30 years. "It's never been like this."
The new report, "The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Maryland 2012," was produced by researchers at the University of Washington School of Social Work, in cooperation with the Maryland Community Action Partnership. The standard calculates the cost of basic needs for low-income families by looking at the price of such necessities as housing, food, transportation and childcare in each county.
For example, a single parent with one preschooler and one school-age child needs to make $54,295 a year to live in St. Mary's County, and two parents with a preschooler and a school-age child would need $62,669.
The median annual household income in the county is deceptively high -- about $88,500 -- in large part because the county is home to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
The military installation employs 22,400 people. An estimated 71 percent live in the county, said Gary Younger, the base's public information officer.
Employees are paid an average annual salary of $88,000, Younger said, with some programs paying much more.
However, someone applying for a high-paid technical job at the base would need at least a bachelor's degree to qualify, he said. And only about 30 percent of county residents aged 25 and older have a bachelor's degree or higher, according to 2010 census data.
Those who don't qualify for work in high-paying jobs like those at the military installation are struggling to get by, and local assistance programs like the housing authority are struggling to help them.
Service-related jobs, like retail, food or housekeeping, even those offered on the base, pay well under the $25.75 hourly pay needed to make a parent with two young children living in the county self-sufficient, the study said.
"Their earning ability is shrinking," said Dennis Nicholson, executive director of the Housing Authority of St. Mary's County. "Either the ability to step up to higher wage rates isn't there ... or their skill set limits folks to certain service-related jobs" that offer part-time hours and low wages.
A combination of factors has led to higher rents and a shortage of affordable housing for those who need it, Nicholson said.
The naval air station brings higher-paying professional jobs into the area, which increases the number of those in certain income levels. Limited land resources and locations for housing has led to higher rents and more expensive new housing, Nicholson said.
From 2000 to 2008, St. Mary's experienced a 12.1 percent increase in real income, but also a 24.7 percent increase in real rent, according to a rental market assessment by Real Property Research Group.
The waiting list has been growing for Section 8 rental assistance, the most popular housing assistance program, in which people, including the elderly and those with disabilities, are given rental vouchers to subsidize their rent.
Some applications filed in early 2008 are being looked at only now, said Crystal Wojciechowski, acting program manager for community development at the Housing Authority of St. Mary's County.
There are more than 5,500 applicants on the waiting lists for Section 8 rental assistance, public housing and rental allowance, a program that is similar to Section 8 but covers only one year.
A three-person family making 30 percent of the median income makes about $24,000 year, less than half of what's needed to cover basic costs, according to the study.
As incomes decrease because of stagnant, low wages in service-related jobs and increases in the cost of living, Wojciechowski said more people apply for assistance and the list gets longer.
The Housing Authority of St. Mary's County is getting only about 82 percent of the federal funding they used to get from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Wojciechowski said.
"Even if we were still getting funded 100 percent on the dollar, we would still be serving less people," she said, because rental subsidies have risen as a result of decreased incomes and rises in rent.
The study did not determine how many working families have incomes below the Self-Sufficiency Standard. Census Bureau data show that roughly 18,000 people -- about 18 percent -- who live in St. Mary's County live in families with incomes less than 200 percent of the census poverty threshold. (For a family of four, twice the threshold would be about $44,000.) The census data count the elderly and other categories that were not included in the self-sufficiency calculations for working families.
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