Housing Advocates Debate Work Requirements to Ease Affordable Housing Crisis

PHOTO: Edward Washington, a resident in a Houston Housing Authority property who has was born with a bone defect, said he is in favor of programs that motivate public housing residents to gain financial independence.

Affordable housing advocates are skeptical about the move in some areas of the country to impose work requirements and time limits for residents in public housing.

The affordable housing crisis for lower income households has grown so much that waiting lists for public housing assistance have thousands of names and it can take years to move to the front of the list.

"People think there's a safety net out there, but especially with the financial crisis and housing crash there is a safety net, but the truth is the safety net is full and there is a huge waiting list," said Tory Gunsolley, president and CEO of the Houston Housing Authority.

The number of households with incomes below half the median in their area grew to 8.5 million families in 2011, up 43.5 percent since 2007, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in February.

The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority hasn't opened its public assistance waiting lists since 2008. When Houston's Housing Authority opened its waiting list in 2006, there were 29,000 applicants. The next time the list was opened last summer, it attracted 83,000 applicants for housing vouchers.

"If you were in crisis five years, you might be on the top of my list," Gunsolley said about Houston's public housing waiting list. "But if there is a crisis today, there is no immediate way for us to help you."

The average amount of time residents receive public housing assistance varies wildly across the country. Unlike the five-year time limit for those receiving welfare assistance, there is no federal time limit for housing. In New York City, people stay in public housing for 20.7 years on average. In Minneapolis, the average amount of time a household spends in that city's high-rise public housing units is a little over six years, while there is one elderly participant who has lived in public housing for 41 years. Families who receive vouchers for rental assistance participate in that program for an average of about seven years; the average amount of time the disabled and elderly stay in that program is 8.5 years.

One of the ways to potentially allow more people to participate in public housing programs is to have stricter rules, such as work requirements or time limits for residents. A HUD program called "Moving to Work" has given 39 housing authorities, out of over 3,000 nationally, the flexibility to implement guidelines that work best for their communities. The housing authority for Milwaukee said they will likely implement work requirements for people receiving public assistance, the Wall Street Journal reported.

President Obama has called for an expansion of the "Moving to Work" program, which began in 1996, as part of his 2014 budget.

Linda Couch, the National Low Income Housing Coalition's senior vice president for policy and research, said there is little research to back up the idea that having a time limit on public housing assistance will help motivate residents to move into the private real estate market or increase their earned income.

"The housing authorities don't have enough money to do what they need to do. Their back is up against the wall. They see flexibility in deregulation to make their own decisions about who they serve and how they serve as a method for their survival," Couch said. "That might be true but it doesn't do anything to help the affordable housing crisis."

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