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Working Out Of Public Housing

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By Lowell L. Kalapa
(Released on 11/25/07)

The new head of the state’s public housing authority recently appeared before a joint legislative committee on housing to update lawmakers on the progress being made to repair, renovate, and rehabilitate the state’s nearly 50 public housing projects across the state.

What lawmakers heard was a 180-degree turn around from the woes of the public housing picture of yesterday. Instead of responses of “we’ll get back to you on that,” public housing officials had the facts and figures down to the last dime. They knew how many elevators were still out of commission, which ones had been repaired and which ones could never be repaired. They were up-front and honest about the years of neglect, vandalism, and lack of sufficient funding that contributed to the sorry state of the dilapidated public housing stock.

What was surprising is that the lack of sufficient funding was due not only to the legislature not adequately funding the program, but more importantly, due to the amount of delinquent or pass-due rent that is still owed the public housing authority. And it is not like the public housing authority is charging market rents. In fact, rents in public housing are based on the amount of income received by the family. It is set at 30% of the family’s income. Thus, if the family earns $100 a month, the rent is $30. If income is $1,000, rent is $300 a month.

As of the latest reporting date, public housing officials reported that more than $1.1 million of delinquent rent is more than 90-days past due. Another $400,000 is delinquent between 30 and 90 days. This is money that could go toward the repair and maintenance of the various public housing projects.

One has to ask how come officials allowed tenants to become that far behind in their rent payments when the rent is based on the income received. In other words, the family had income in the month that the rent was owed, but they chose not to pay their rent and instead spent it on other things. While it is understandable that public officials may not want to be hard hearted and evict these families, they certainly aren’t doing the families any favor. Instead of enforcing the rules, as any landlord would, they are allowing the families in public housing to believe that they don’t have to pay rent because there are no consequences.

Even other residents of public housing see the inequity of having to pay rent while their next-door neighbor can go month after month without paying rent. But is that fair? What about all the other families who are on the waiting list for public housing living on the beaches? And what about taxpayers who struggle to pay their rent each month or make that mortgage payment? In a way, while taxpayers struggle to put a roof over their head, they are being asked to subsidize someone who chooses not to pay anything for his or her shelter.

That philosophy is about to change according to the new chief of the housing authority. Management will make concerted efforts to collect back rent because new federal rules will require that each project be self-sustaining if it is to receive any support from the federal government. This means enforcement of rules governing the payment of rent with the consequence of being evicted.

And the consequence of being evicted is severe. Should the situation ever result in an eviction, that person can never, ever return to public housing. While some lawmakers shouted foul to that rule, the public housing officials pointed out that there are safety valves all along the way and that eviction was truly the choice of last resort. They pointed out that families could appeal the eviction or perhaps just leave of their own volition. But if they owed back rent, they could not return to public housing until that rent was paid.

This comes as welcome news as there is no way that the state, or for that matter the federal government, can continue to build more and more public housing units. However, in order to avoid building more public housing those living in public housing today must be given the skills so that they can move out of public housing. This means job skills, budgeting skills, understanding the responsibility to meet obligations like rent and utilities, and to be a contributing member of society.

Instead of remaining in public housing where, yes, it is true there are some projects where five generations of the same family have remained in public housing, public housing should be seen as a temporary stopping place on the way to self-sufficiency. Public housing should not be viewed as an entitlement, but as a hand up in a time of need.

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