Worcester Housing Authority “Tough Love” Produces Results and Eye Rolling

When the Worcester Housing Authority announced that it had tripled aggregate wages for its residents, we took notice. And when both the federal government and the MA Senate Commission rolled their eyes at this result, we became very curious, indeed. We've investigated and discovered something important that no one's talking about.

Overview

WHA provides state- and federally-subsidized housing. In other words, if you cannot afford to live elsewhere, you can live at WHA for almost free. The minimum "co-pay" is $25/mo. By design no one pays more than 30% of what they make.

The WHA's new program, called A Better Life, now requires that every household with an able-bodied adult either send that person to work or to school. There is special training to make this happen. Minors and the disabled are exempt, but otherwise, lazy people will be evicted. Waiting lists for public housing are already between eight and twelve years long, state-wide. The threat of eviction is a motivator. Actual eviction would make room for someone else to have a chance.

As reported by Worcester Magazine, program inventor Ray Mariano has been surprised by the strength and staying power of the program's results:

  • Increased the number of residents employed full-time from 22% to 60%
  • Increased the number of program participants from 21% to 66%
  • Increased aggregate annual wages from $1.1 million to $2.9 million
  • Increased average individual annual wages from $17,505 to $25,625 (46%)

Are these numbers in dispute? Not to our knowledge. But the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) denied expansion of the program. Currently, A Better Life applies only to residents whose housing is paid for by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. HUD units may not face eviction for non-participation.

There are unflattering reasons why HUD might resist this change. It could be politics, it could be "not invented here" syndrome. HUD has remained silent on its rejection. Here are two concerns they might have expressed:

  • It might be better to build more public housing in Worcester.
  • It's not clear that "we, the safety net" should be evicting people.

It Might be Better to Build More Public Housing in Worcester

We quickly learned why HUD didn't suggest this. According to the president's 2016 budget, HUD will spend almost $50 billion on housing "stuff". How much of this is new construction? Zero.

In the summary we read, nothing is being set aside for new construction whatsoever. And with a budget of $50 billion, very little could actually be built.

According to a conversation with Ray Mariano documented on our blog, it would cost one billion dollars just to create all the public housing that is currently in demand in Worcester. This cost checks against our back-of-the-envelope calculations.

Multiply this figure state- or nation-wide, and you can see we have a serious problem making good on our social contract. Perhaps HUD has given up on ever building anywhere again. They certainly can't give 2% of their operating budget to build in Worcester. Politically, building more housing must be out in left-field.

It's Not Clear that "We, the Safety Net" Should be Evicting People

Why didn't HUD bring up evictions as a reason to stop A Better Life? Because HUD is the most cold-hearted, eviction-happy landlord of all.

The essence of the social safety net, its reason to exist, is that it should catch everyone before they slip through the cracks. Public housing might seem poised to do this. HUD might say this is their mission.

But actually, if a resident fails to pay their portion of the rent each month, they will be evicted. And then they may be blacklisted. The same applies for drug offense. Drugs are an automatic three-year blacklist. Non-payment is a possible five-year blacklist. The blacklisted person must somehow increase their income, or move in with friends or family. Otherwise, they will fall into a homeless shelter.

We asked Ray Mariano how many households have been evicted under A Better Life to date. His answer: Zero. Everyone has participated. No one was lazy or undeserving. Everyone wanted to better themselves with WHA's help. This is a result that should make housing advocates jump for joy. "People deserve to be helped!"

For comparison's sake, during the last four years of A Better Life, how many WHA families were evicted by HUD's mandates? 800. Many of these were no-doubt blacklisted and are now seriously on skid row. What does this figure extrapolate to nation-wide? This is a result that should be on national news. HUD is failing to act as a safety net in the most cruel and terrible way, not just evicting residents, but barring them from touching the safety net again for three to five years.

In conclusion...

We researched A Better Life and found no reason why it should not be rolled out state-wide, or even nation-wide. The only reason anyone either at HUD or the Senate Commission can roll their eyes at this program is partisanship at its worst.

And HUD, in particular, is in no position to judge. HUD has decades-long waiting lists. HUD has draconian blacklists. HUD is refusing to entertain A Better Life or even to discuss how it could help them. It's time HUD stopped blocking this good idea. In fact, you might say it's time for HUD to be evicted.

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