Stateline Story

Public Housing Agencies Experiment With Time Limits

KENT COUNTY, DE -- When she went to renew her lease this summer, Dalphine Moore was surprised to learn that she was about to become one of the first participants in yet another federal experiment: a program designed to move families out of public housing.

A 36 year-old single mother in the process of working her way off welfare, Moore had heard rumblings about Moving to Work as the national pilot project is called, but she did not know it meant her rent would double to $248 or that she and her son could stay in their apartment only three more years.

Today, Moore is more familiar with the rules. She knows that her remaining time in public housing is limited and that if she is late with her rent one more time -- as she has been twice since August -- she could be evicted even sooner.

For the first time, thousands of public housing residents nationwide are facing the prospect of time limits and tough sanctions. They are being given three, five, sometimes eight years to get their finances in order and make room for other families.

It's all part of a series of measures designed to overhaul the nation's federally subsidized housing.

In the past three years, Congress has freed cities to demolish decrepit housing projects. It has opened up housing to working families with higher incomes. And, in a program reminiscent of the early years of welfare reform, it has invited a select number of housing authorities to craft their own programs virtually unencumbered by officials in Washington.

The Delaware State Housing Authority, which governs federally subsidized housing in the southern half of the state, is one of 23 agencies across the country now free to spend their federal dollars and run their housing programs as they see fit.

All of the 23 agencies, which are considered among the best in the nation, have designed their programs with three goals in mind: save money, promote self-sufficiency and expand housing options.

While most have not elected to impose time limits, seven, including Delaware, have.

Salt Lake City, Utah has chosen a five-year limit. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, five other regions also plan to institute mandatory time limits: Vancouver, Washington; Keene, New Hampshire; Tulare County, California; Lincoln, Nebraska and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Another four are imposing time limits on families who volunteer to join self-sufficiency programs.

"HUD has not proposed time limits," said Rod Solomon, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development who oversees Moving to Work. "We have had several years of legislative debate," he said. "No one wanted to push time limits."

Moving to Work is the product of a Republican Congress impatient with the ever-rising costs of public housing and what it sees as mismanagement by HUD.

In the past two budget cycles, Congress did vote modest increases in housing for the poor. But those new dollars came after three years of budget stagnation.

Meanwhile, over the course of the decade the national supply of affordable housing has diminished and demand has increased, creating what HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo calls a shortage of historic proportions.

In Delaware, the Director of the State Housing Authority, Susan Frank, is under pressure to find room for the 2,000 families on her waiting list.

Public housing, Frank says, is one of the most valuable resources available for the poor; residents who do not work pay next to nothing in rent. And, for those who lose their jobs -- whether they are fired or just quit -- the rent goes down.

"I don't think the current system is fair," Frank said. "We are trying to level the playing field for everybody and help more people with that valuable resource."

While homeless families in Delaware can expect to receive assistance in a year or two, some of the nation's largest cities have closed their waiting lists because they see no immediate prospect of housing people already on it.

Washington, D.C. has compiled a list five-years long. In New York City, the wait can be eight years.

In Delaware, the Housing Authority operates in the black and keeps its property well-maintained. Residents have few complaints about crime.

While the time limits raise the hackles of advocates, residents here say three years is reasonable. Many have experienced periods of homelessness and understand the value of their leases.

But, they are deeply distrustful of the methods and motive of the state housing authority. While most of Delaware's public housing tenants are African American, most of the state housing representatives are white.

Tabitha Sabb lives with her young son in downtown Dover with the help of a rental voucher from the state. She works part-time as a tutor and is working toward her Associate's Degree.

Delaware's program will affect all recipients of housing assistance, including those who receive vouchers toward rent in private apartments. Only the elderly and disabled are exempt.

"I feel like we are going to be cheated," Sabb said. "Somewhere along the line, we are going to be cheated."

Sabb is talking about the chief fixture of Delaware's Moving to Work program, an insistence that residents, a year into the program, open a bank account and contribute to it every month.

The housing authority is betting that residents' incomes will rise over the course of the program. As they earn more, their rent in years two and three will not go up. Instead, families must deposit the difference -- the amount their rent would have increased -- into a personal savings account.

Residents will not be allowed to access that account without the housing authority's approval.

"I want to have that choice to have control over my money," Sabb said. "How can you expect people to become self-sufficient if they [DSHA] still control the money?"

"I can see someone saying the housing authority is controlling and they are," said Linda Stevenson, who lives in a Dover public housing complex and serves as the president of her tenants' association. "In one way, it's a good thing."

"Public housing, as well as welfare, has been a way of life for so long for some people," she said. "If I went to stay with my brother, he is going to want to know, 'What are you doing to better your situation? What are you going to do so you don't need my help?' That's how I see Moving to Work."

Stevenson moved into her apartment five years ago after she was evicted from a house she rented and she became too ill to work. She now works part-time at a homeless shelter.

Like many of the women who rely on public housing, but do not receive welfare, Stevenson has no health insurance.

Despite her enthusiasm for Moving to Work, Stevenson echoes a nearly universal sentiment here. She does not think the state is bringing enough resources to bear for the families who need extra help.

In the three months since the program began, Delaware has signed up fewer than 50 of the more than 900 residents who will be affected. No one has gone door-to-door to talk to residents about the program.

Moving to Work does not come with any new federal funds. Housing agencies are expected to use increased income from higher rents to provide the necessary services.

With the help of the Delaware Housing Coalition, a group of women who live in public housing in Smyrna, a town north of Dover, are organizing a Statewide Association of Tenants (SWAT) to bring their demand for more services to the state's attention.

"This plan is not a motivator. It would be a motivator is they said they were going to see what you need to get a job," said Winnie Cooper, Secretary of SWAT.

SWAT would like job counselors, van pools and child care available to residents at each development.

Cooper has also used her time in public housing to return to school and is now six months away from receiving her Bachelor's Degree.

She is confident she will be able to relocate successfully when her time is up, but she fears for the other families whom she thinks will not.

Dalphine Moore says she has nowhere to go if she loses her apartment. Her mother is dead. Her father is in prison. Her sister also lives in subsidized housing.

"Something has got to go," Moore said with resignation, contemplating giving up her recently purchased car and catching rides from her building in Camden to her $5.80-an-hour job three miles away at the Playtex plant in Dover.

Twice late with rent equals two strikes, Moore says, although she has not received any official notice of a violation.

The Housing Authority confirms that three late rent payments in a year are grounds for eviction.

In addition to penalizing residents for violating the terms of their leases, Delaware has taken a page from its welfare program and adopted a three-strikes-and-you're out policy.

"We did not want anyone in our program to be under a whole new set of rules," said Susan Frank, Director of DSHA. Frank estimates about half the residents are familiar with the state's new welfare rules.

"I think you need a little bit of carrots and a little bit of sticks and that's what we are trying to do," she said.

While the Housing Authority insists it has given residents ample opportunity to air their grievances, Frank says she will continue to listen.

"We are committed to meeting the needs of our residents by finding them the services to help them," she said. "We have told them we want to work with them."

Rebecca Kauffman, who supervises the four counselors assigned to implement Moving to Work, insists the authority will work with residents to assure their compliance.

"I do feel bad that the residents feel panicked," Kauffman said. "We are not the enemy."

"If they meet us halfway, I think it will be okay."

Note: There are 23 cities and counties participating in Moving to Work. They are, in addition to the seven listed above: the Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles; the San Diego Housing Commission; the Housing Authority of the County of San Mateo, Belmont, CA; the Lawrence Housing Authority, Lawrence, KS; the Housing Authority of Louisville, Louisville, KY; the Cambridge Housing Authority, Cambridge, MA; the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development; the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority; the High Point Housing Authority, High Point, NC; the Greene Metropolitan Housing Authority, Xenia, OH; the Portage Metropolitan Housing Authority, Ravenna, OH; the Housing Authority of Portland, OR; the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh; the Housing Authority of the City of San Antonio; the Seattle Housing Authority and the Stevens Point Housing Authority, Stevens Point, WI.

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