Income limits and public housing

The New York Post published an editorial this past Sunday vilifying affordable housing. As proof, it used a July audit of HUD by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) that showed a total of 25,226 households living in public housing units nationwide were over HUD’s income limits for FY2014. The OIG excluded Moving to Work housing authorities from their audit, because the rules for these authorities (of which Chicago is one) are lax and HUD oversight is purposefully minimal. This adjustment left 2,257 (out of approximately 3,300) authorities with usable data.

The audit report does not explain if the OIG used gross income (income before taxes) or adjusted gross income (which deducts certain expenses, such as childcare, medical bills, dependents from the gross income) to determine income eligibility. HUD requires housing authorities to adjust a household’s gross income as needed, based on a long list of possible circumstances. It is possible, therefore, to have a gross income several thousand dollars over the HUD limits and still be eligible to receive a voucher and live in federally subsidized housing.

Now, I am sure there are people who sneak into assisted housing by quitting their jobs in time for admission into the program (the only time at which HUD’s income limits are enforced) only to resume working once their subsidy kicks in, and I am sure there are some housing authorities that willfully overlook such discrepancies during a household’s annual reexamination, but these only account for 2.6 percent of all households receiving assistance, according to a HUD comment on the report. Furthermore, even with income limits in excess of HUDs income limits, market-rate housing in many neighborhoods might still be unaffordable to working-class families.

In Chicago, the threshold for admission into the public housing program is 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI). This translates to $60,800 for a family of four. At $60,801 you are denied. Still, the median rent for a 2 bedroom apartment in, say, Edgewater (which has a high rating for both jobs and transportation on the H+T Index), is $1,496 –just barely affordable (using the 30 percent rule) to a family at 80 percent AMI.

My objective is not to excuse mismanagement of funds, it is merely to point out that the data in this report (and the rhetoric in the Post article) are only a small portion of the bigger affordable housing picture. I could argue all day about the efficacy (or lack thereof) of the income limits, the income adjustment process, who is and isn’t served by affordable housing policy but at the end of the day people need housing, whether or not they are employed. And I believe more people want to live in market-rate units (which, unfortunately, are often in better neighborhoods than their public housing counterparts) than want to remain in government-sponsored housing. By allowing overincome households to stay in public housing, HUD encourages low-income families to find jobs, pay taxes and contribute to their communities.

For all the housing naysayers and those who claim everyone in public housing is a drain on society, I give you this conclusion: it is possible to enter housing programs with no income and then, with the stability of a home, to find employment that allows you to meet and exceed expectations.






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