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On June 25, April Corbin from the LEO broke the news locally that the Louisville Metropolitan Housing Authority (LMHA) would be considering Louisville as a site for a new U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) study entitled “Housing Choice Voucher Rent Reform Study.” The project’s goals aim to incentivize employment, reduce the cost and burden of administration work by local housing authorities, and finally, to achieve the above outcomes without increasing the cost of the program.

Louisville is one of four cities chosen to be a part of the study, along with Lexington, Washington D.C., and San Antonio. The study would randomly select 1,000 residents currently enrolled in the Housing Choice Voucher program administered by HUD and LMHA. These participants would be subject to a different set of rent regulations than other residents involved in LMHA subsidy programs. Here’s how HUD describes the Housing Choice Voucher program on its website:

The housing choice voucher program is the federal government’s major program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market. Since housing assistance is provided on behalf of the family or individual, participants are able to find their own housing, including single-family homes, townhouses and apartments.

The study, however, has proven to be a contentious issue for local housing advocates and engaged citizens who have raised concerns over its participant selection method—and those participants’ inability to opt out of the study. Also, questions have been raised concerning cuts to childcare subsidies, and newly mandatory increased minimum rent payments billed as “work incentives.” Many residents are asking about the ethics around transferring the financial responsibility of our social safety net to populations affected by the very issues that system is meant to address.

The Housing Choice study is intended to accomplish three goals laid out by HUD in response to significant and continuing changes in funding priorities since the Housing Act of 1949. Budget cuts and program realignment—away from publicly funded housing construction and maintenance toward a public-private market-based vouchering system—has moved HUD, and its state-based housing authorities, to prioritize removing benefits, subsidies, and deductions that might create disincentives to entering the workforce. The program additionally seeks reductions in complexity and burden (cost) of service delivery by housing authority staff and a continuing active desire to reduce spending on subsidies for public housing service expenditures.

“Many residents are asking about the ethics around transferring the financial responsibility of our social safety net to populations affected by the very issues that system is meant to address.”

These goals were translated into an alternative rent policy and a proposed demonstration project by the study’s designer, Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC). In an attempt to reach these goals, MDRC has proposed a rent reform study, to be conducted on eligible residents. Each participant would be chosen by a lottery and would be subject to a new set of rules that attempt to address the above issues by:

 

  • Simplifying the calculation of tenants’ total household payment through eliminating deductions and allowances, including the child care deduction; changing the percentage of income a household pays as its share of rent from 30 percent of adjusted income to 28 percent of gross income; ignoring a household’s income from assets when the total value is less than $25,000; and simplifying utility allowances.
  • Using retrospective income to determine total tenant payment and housing subsidy in an attempt to discourage intentional reductions of income.
  • Establish a minimum total tenant payment of $75 to be paid directly to the landlord. This is done to mirror the non-subsidized private market, landlord-tenant relationship.
  • Income recertification will be conducted every three years instead of annually. For tenants this means that total tenant payment will remain locked for three years. This incentivizes work by eliminating a tax on increased wages for three years.
  • Interim recertification will be limited to a maximum of once per year. This protects residents whose income may drop and limits the burden on the housing authority.
Sheppard Square houses before demolition. (Drew Tucker)
Sheppard Square houses before demolition. (Drew Tucker)

 

This study was met with immediate criticism by Louisville housing justice organizations, activists, and concerned citizens. They maintained that eliminating the childcare subsidy and the inability of residents to opt out of the study were not only unjust but bordered on targeted discrimination. Public housing programs include a high proportion of single, African American women with children, and this study’s mandates would likely affect a large number of individuals in that demographic.

Initially, the residents selected were not eligible to opt out of the study because of a legal loophole in which public housing tenants’ information is not protected from collection or use by the local housing authority due to that body’s mandate to act with full information in the best interest for its clients. Now, tenants would be able to deny MDRC access to any data collected by the LMHA.

Soon after public protest by justice community members, the LMHA postponed the study. “I felt obligated to stop the process,” LMHA executive director Tim Berry told the LEO. “There’s no need to rush through anything,” adding that he would be “meeting with University of Louisville professors” about “legitimate concerns” with the study. Soon after, LMHA approved a revised version of the study that lowered the mandatory tenant rent to $50, allowed for residents to opt out of the study, and exempted the approximately ten percent of residents who receive child care benefits.

While seemingly resolved for the moment, what hasn’t been discussed openly is the implicit assumptions layered within HUD’s goals and MDRC’s study. A brief reading of the objectives, goals, and proposed study itself immediately reveals a few things:

  1. HUD and LMHA are most interested in creating an environment that does not disincentivize residents from moving toward gainful employment. The implicit assumption here is that there is a significant problem with housing subsidy beneficiaries taking jobs, even though research suggests otherwise.
  2. HUD’s goals continue to attempt to influence the behavior of tenants through private market integration, in this case through the tenant-landlord relationship. This is a strange, and somewhat redundant practice since the U.S. model of Housing Choice Vouchers is already a model for public to private behavior that attempts to move public services (and individuals) off the government’s payroll and move them into the private market.
  3. The seeming dismantling of services for families by HUD and LMHA is disturbing. The targeting of the childcare credit, although only utilized by ten percent of residents, seems to beg the question of “why is use so low,” not “is this a low hanging fruit to cut.”

These concerns, combined with years of demolition of family-sized public housing units at the Cotter Lang, Iroquois, Clarksdale, and recently, Sheppard Square public housing sites, combed with the recreation of less units of smaller size, and in some cases no replacement at all, all point to an apparent lack of interest in addressing the needs of impoverished families, and a strange ignorance of the increasingly high child homelessness rate in Louisville.

What should be asked of LMHA, HUD, and MDRC in this instance is: What research do you have that suggests public housing residents aren’t looking for work? Does that research tell you that they simply aren’t interested in working or is there a more complicated story about wages, access, etc.? What kind of job opportunities are there for public housing residents in Louisville locally, and Kentucky more broadly? And perhaps at the federal level we could ask, how is our strategy of constant defunding of public infrastructure working? Is the private sector able to manage the transition of these programs to its roster? Are our most vulnerable citizens safer, better housed, and employed? Simply, is this the best we can do?

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Drew Tucker

A fifth generation Louisvillian, Drew received his MS in Design & Urban Ecologies from Parsons the New School for Design. He loves the La Cite for its contradictions, human processes, and liberatory conflict. His current engagements include Noble, a workers collective, project visioning for TruLab with Aseem Inam, development work for the University of Orange in New Jersey, and a two-year research commitment to a communal remediation project in Wyoming. He currently resides in Flatbush, Brooklyn with his dogs Gracie & Musket, and his much smarter, much better looking partner, Colette Henderson.
Drew Tucker

1 COMMENT

  1. Good article and good questions, Drew. This “research method” wherein residents cannot opt-out is unethical from both the researcher’s and government’s perspectives, in my opinion. Something about treating people as objects rather than as… people.

    On the other hand, extending the recertification period to 3 years seems genuinely helpful. The other “incentives,” not so much.

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