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Archive for Monday, November 15, 1999

HOUSING PROGRAM PASSES FIRST TEST

November 15, 1999

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Most Lawrence Housing Authority tenants were able to pay higher rents that took effect Oct. 1 under the "Moving to Work" program.

For more than six months, the Lawrence Housing Authority has been telling its able-bodied tenants they need to have a job because the rent rules were going to change.

The message appears to have gotten through.

After the first month of new rent rules in LHA's "Moving to Work" program, officials said only a handful of tenants failed to pay their new rent.

Still, LHA executive director Barbara Huppee said it's too early to tell whether the program has been an immediate success.

"I think we still have a wait-and-see attitude," she said.

Two years ago, Lawrence was selected as one of 23 communities nationwide to launch demonstration programs aimed at reforming the nation's public housing system.

The program here involved efforts to move chronically unemployed residents back into the workforce by removing the financial incentives built into the housing system for staying unemployed.

Before the new program started, she said, rent for a family in LHA housing was set at 30 percent of their adjusted gross income for the month, the standard rule of thumb for defining "affordable housing."

That meant if a person's income went up, so too did the rent. But by the same token, rent would go down if a person lost his or her job or had to take a cut in hours.

Under that system, Huppee said, some LHA tenants paid as little as $10 per month in rent.

And if those tenants also received a utility subsidy that exceeded their rent, they ended up paying "negative rent" because the housing authority would actually write out checks to those tenants each month instead of collecting rent from them.

Huppee said the new system tries to mirror what happens in the real market. Under Moving to Work, she said, there is a minimum and maximum rent for each unit, depending on its size, and tenants sign leases fixing their rent at a constant amount for one year.

During that time, she said, the tenants must be working or engaged in a work-related training program. And regardless of whether the tenant's income goes up or down, she said, the rent remains the same for the term of the lease.

The program has three objectives, Huppee said: to move families into the workforce; to decrease the amount of federal subsidies going into public housing; and to increase housing choice for tenants.

The program officially got started in April, Huppee said, when new tenants coming into the housing authority were required to meet the new requirements.

But people who already were in the LHA system -- including both the public housing units owned by LHA and those getting Section 8 subsidies to rent privately owned units -- were given six months advance notice, meaning the new rules took effect Oct. 1.

On Oct. 1, Huppee said, there were 122 families in LHA's public housing units, not counting elderly or disabled tenants who were excluded from the Moving to Work program.

Of those, eight failed to meet the work requirement, and only one failed to pay rent that was due Oct. 1, even though 81 tenants saw their rent go up Oct. 1.

The increases ranged from a low of $2 to a high of $348, with the average at about $97 per month.

In the Section 8 program, 221 tenants were shifted into the Moving to Work program on Oct. 1. Of those, 141 saw their rent go up an average of $273. Seven failed to meet the work requirement and 13 failed to pay rent that was due Oct. 1.

Huppee said one reason for the low delinquency rate may have been that tenants were given six months' warning and many of them were prepared for the rent hikes when they took effect in October.

"This is just month one," Huppee said. "Let's see if it's sustained.

-- Peter Hancock's phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is phancock@ljworld.com.

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