Time Limits Needed for Public Housing: WHA Denied Chance to Reform

On Monday, September 22, the Worcester Housing Authority sent a news alert that was retracted shortly thereafter. The alert announced time limits for public housing and housing choice vouchers (section 8) administered through the WHA office. The announcement was retracted when the Department of Housing and Urban Development withdrew the approval they had previously given. This is a shame.  Time limits in public housing are desperately needed.

We recently tweeted about time limits and public housing:

Public housing must have time limits

The Worcester Housing Authority plan was aimed at addressing waitlists that are years long.  It's like that Ronald Reagan joke:

A Russian wants to buy a car.  He goes to the official agency, puts down his money, and is told that he can take delivery of his automobile in exactly 10 years.

"Morning or afternoon?" the purchaser asks.

"Ten years from now, what difference does it make?" replies the clerk.

"Well," says the car buyer, "the plumber's coming in the morning."

(as quoted in "The Dispatch", August 25, 1987)

It's unthinkable that we could have a similar situation in the United States, in today's day and age.  But for many of our nation's poor, this is exactly the situation.

If you're like the tenant we recently spoke with in Worcester, you might wait seven years for public assistance with housing. In the meantime, has the public done anything to help you improve your situation? Seven years is an enormous amount of time. It's enough time to earn a degree or other work skills on nights and weekends.  It's enough time that the very nature of your need could change.  Children could become old enough to work, or elderly could fall into even greater need.

There are programs like RAFT designed to provide emergency assistance.  The income limits set by these programs exclude all but the most indigent. A single mother making $1,700/mo cannot, according to conservative rental standards, afford an apartment in Worcester renting for $800/mo.  She falls far below the 3x ratio landlords like to see. But this single mom likely will not qualify for public assistance beyond food stamps, WIC, and winter heating. A temporary Section 8 voucher should be the solution, but it can't be: waiting lists are years long.

How are we failing our poor so badly?

Part of the reason has to do with the lifetime status associated with a grant of public housing. The Executive Director of the Worcester Housing Authority, Ray Mariano, was quoted by the Telegram as having "thousands of families stuck in an unending cycle of intergenerational poverty."

For instance, once you're awarded a housing choice voucher, it's yours until you do something to lose it (i.e., eviction). That means, unless funding is allocated to create a new voucher, yours is permanently unavailable to all comers. The public will happily pay a portion of your rent from now until forever without once helping you get off of public assistance. You can teach your children the same trick, caring for them in your own subsidized apartment until they can make it through the waitlists and into their own.

The problem is not particular to Massachusetts.  The CEO of the Houston Housing Authority recently said, "People think there's a safety net out there... but the truth is the safety net is full and there is a huge waiting list."  In that same article, ABC reports that in New York City, people stay on public housing assistance for 20 years, on average.  "On average" means many are there for life.

The Announcement from the Worcester Housing Authority

We got our hands on the letter sent by Ray Mariano and his team. In support of his hard work and forward thinking, we're making his letter available here. (He has retracted it from the WHA site.)

Click to download the pdf:

Worcester Housing Authority Thumbnail, Time Limits on Public Housing

We're sorry, Ray.  We were delighted that HUD had approved your amendment, as well.

Corrections: In an earlier version of this article, we stated that a single mom making "$1,700/mo ... cannot qualify" for programs like RAFT.  We changed it to "likely will not qualify." Actually, for RAFT it depends on whether all 30% AMI funding has been allocated, and then the actual disqualification income would be anything over $1,755/mo.  For TAFDC the limits are similar; the tenant in mind when writing this article was declined for TAFDC using the online eligibility check on July 30, 2014.

The mission of MassLandlords.net is to create better rental housing in Massachusetts by helping current, new and prospective landlords run profitable, compliant, and quality businesses.  To this end, we organize opportunities for landlord education and networking and advocate appropriate changes to the laws.

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