Housing Advocates Debate Work Requirements to Ease Affordable Housing Crisis

Obama calls for a program expansion for which critics say there is little data.

May 8, 2013 — -- 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."

Because more than half of HUD-assisted households cycle out of rental assistance in about five years, Couch said she is doubtful tighter requirements will shorten waiting lists.

Couch also said imposing those rules will inordinately harm seniors and disabled receiving housing assistance.

Edward Washington, Jr. a disabled resident in one of Houston Housing Authority's property and a service coordinator and elderly case worker for the Housing Authority, said he is in favor of requiring some participants to work.

Houston Housing Authority is not a participant in HUD's "Moving to Work" program, so it does not have a work requirement or time limit, but it does have a community service requirement for able-bodied households of eight hours a week.

Washington, 54, was born with a birth defect called Osteo-genesis Imperfector, known as "brittle bones." He has been a resident in a public housing property for three years and has worked for Houston Housing Authority for two.

When asked for his opinion about a time limit of say, five to 10 years, for some properties, Washington said, "I don't think limiting their stay in public housing to five to 10 years should be set in stone, but it should be used to motivate or give the individual a guide to go by. As far as work goes, we need to have the opportunity to play our part in society just like everyone else."

Washington said any potential time limit "should not be set in stone, because for some of us, public housing is our home."

"But this limitation should be like the proverbial boot," he said. "Every once in a while, we need a swift kick in the behind to get us motivated or going in the right direction."

Gunsolley of the Houston Housing Authority said he is not for or against time limits or work requirements for public housing participants, but he applauds the greater flexibility that "Moving to Work" affords housing authorities across the country.

"In an era of decreasing federal funding, it's a critical tool to survive. Even before the financial crisis, we were in a financial crunch. By deregulating, it allows us to re-imagine ways for us to provide these services."

Cora McCorvey, executive director and CEO of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, said her organization has no plans to implement work requirements or time limits. But with the sequestration and budget cuts, "we can't say that we're not going to consider it."

"We're small in terms of housing options for families. Most of our residents are seniors or disabled so imposing limits on those vulnerable people it's not anything we would consider now," she said.

Instead of imposing stricter guidelines on those who can receive assistance, the National Low Income Housing Coalition and 1,000 housing organizations are campaigning for a National Housing Trust Fund to be funded by limiting the mortgage interest tax deduction.

The campaign, called United for Homes, proposes to reduce the size of a mortgage eligible for a tax break to $500,000 from $1 million and convert the deduction to a 15 percent non-refundable tax credit. The group says doing so would raise over $200 billion in revenue over 10 years to end homelessness.

In March, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., proposed the Common Sense Housing Investment Act of 2013 to implement these changes in over five years.

Couch said she said she is doubtful lawmakers will make changes to public housing work requirements, time limits or HUD's Moving to Work program.

"The idea that Congress will do something this year is far-fetched," she said. "Everyone is so focused on deficit reduction. It's extremely frustrating when we don't even know if time limits make sense."