Local housing authority already has work requirements like the ones federal officials are seeking

A proposal from federal housing officials that would raise rents and impose work requirements for people living in subsidized housing would have little effect locally, the leader of the local housing authority said.

In April, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced he was seeking changes that would raise rents for those in subsidized housing who aren’t disabled or 65 years of age or older. Currently, people in subsidized housing are required to put 30 percent of their gross income toward rent. Under Carson’s plan, however, renters would pay 35 percent of their gross income. For the poorest families, rents would triple, rising from $50 a month to $150 a month.

Carson also proposed requiring people to be employed, in school or enrolled in a job training program in order to receive rental assistance.

Both the rent increase and the work requirement will require congressional action.

However, Shannon Oury, executive director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, said that her agency was one of 39 in the nation that already have work requirements, and that it is also the only one in Kansas that already requires people living in public housing or receiving Section 8 housing vouchers to be employed or enrolled in school or a job training program, as long as they aren’t disabled or seniors.

“We were one of the original agencies that came into the Moving to Work Program in 1999,” she said, referring to a federal work-requirement program that agencies could opt into. “We love this program. We think it’s great. It’s a way to assist people to become more self-sufficient.”

Oury said the rent increase Carson was proposing would not have much effect in Lawrence, either. In 2017, the average annual gross income of the 475 Moving to Work tenants was $24,736 and they paid an average of $419 in monthly rent, Housing Authority statistics show. In addition, Oury said the Housing Authority allowed tenants to deduct such things as medical expenses or child care costs from rent payments.

Oury also said that two-thirds of the Housing Authority’s clients were either seniors or disabled, and that the proposed changes would therefore not apply to them.

“They are not going to move on,” she said. “We are their housing solution and will remain so.”

The work requirement applies to about a third of the Housing Authority’s clients, Oury said. In 2017, there were 475 people in the Housing Authority’s Moving to Work Program. Of those, 165 were living in public housing and 310 were receiving Section 8 vouchers.

Statistics from 2017 indicate the tenants are holding jobs, enrolled in educational or job-training programs or — in some cases — both. Of the 165 public housing tenants, 67 had full-time jobs, 72 had part-time jobs, 12 were taking classes in school and 30 were enrolled in job-training programs. Of the 310 receiving Section 8 vouchers, 150 were employed full time and 156 were employed part time. Additionally, 28 were enrolled in school and eight were in job-training programs.

Oury said the Housing Authority works with partners to achieve that employment success and keep people moving toward self-sufficiency.

“We do a lot of outreach to help people find employment,” she said. “We can help someone get a GED if that’s a barrier for getting work. We have a very long partnership with Bert Nash. Our effort is to make sure if someone is having trouble, we work with the family to get them stabilized rather than kick them out.”

The Housing Authority has never evicted a tenant from public housing or had one evicted from a Section 8 rental because of a failure to meet the work requirement, Oury said. The Housing Authority has 363 public housing units and works with landlords to provide 732 Section 8 units, for a total of 1,095 units. In 2017, only 21 tenants were terminated from the program for not paying rent, and three more were evicted for lease violations. That’s a 2 percent termination rate, Oury said.

Oury said her agency’s success stories greatly outnumber the failures.

“We had four households purchase a home last year, and (we had) 85 people become first-time homebuyers since 2002.” she said. “Last year, we had 32 other households increase their earnings to the point that they left our program and moved to market rent.”

Partnerships with Habitat for Humanity and Tenants to Homeowners Inc. have helped tenants move from subsidized housing to homeownership, Oury said.

Rebecca Buford, executive director of Tenants to Homeowners Inc., said the agency has helped seven of the Moving to Work tenants become first-time homeowners through the affordable housing trust fund.

The trust fund money invested into a newly built or rehabilitated home reduces the amount of house payments for the first-time homebuyers working with Tenants to Homeowners, Buford said.

“We have a very good loan program with a prime rate at a 30-year fixed rate with no mortgage insurance,” she said. “That makes buying a home much more affordable.”

Tenants to Homeowners’ outreach to Moving to Work tenants includes presentations at the Housing Authority, Buford said. Those who buy homes are required to take a 20-hour first-time homeowners class and receive one-on-one counseling, she said.

Homeownership is not always the outcome of those in the Moving to Work Program, but Oury said the program was successful in helping people move on from homelessness or precarious living arrangements to independent, self-sufficient living.

“That is our goal, for our families to be able to do that,” she said. “To make sure they move off the program to make room for others who can improve their situation.”