City gets leeway on public housing

Critics say more local control could end up hurting residents

September 26, 2005|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Baltimore's public housing authority has joined a federal pilot program that gives local officials wide latitude over how to spend about $200 million that was once dedicated for housing assistance and permits new requirements for tenants, from credit checks to late fees.

The initiative, called Moving to Work, could speed the planned demolition of more than 600 vacant public housing units as the agency continues to pare down its inventory of dilapidated homes. It also could provide the city with $48 million in unused Section 8 voucher funds it would otherwise have had to return to the federal government.

Created in 1996 and in use in 27 other cities, counties and states, the program gives local housing agencies more freedom to administer services, such as the Section 8 voucher program, by wiping away rules that dictate how money must be spent and how applications for assistance must be processed.

Money formerly earmarked for Section 8, for example, can now be redirected to developing new low-income housing or making existing units accessible to the disabled.

Participation in the program would not result in a reduction of the approximately 10,000 vouchers administered by the agency, officials said.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano called the city's inclusion in the seven-year program "very significant."

"It breaks down some of the institutional barriers, the regulatory entanglements that prohibit us from fashioning our programs to address local challenges," he said.

Graziano said a reduced bureaucracy will benefit public housing residents and Section 8 recipients. For instance, tenants will no longer have to annually certify their income, which ensures they are eligible to receive assistance. Now recipients will document income once every two years, which Graziano said will reduce paperwork for residents and caseworkers.

Several experts and low-income-housing advocates say the program gives local officials too much authority to waive regulations that are in place to protect residents. For example, the program gives local agencies the authority to set rent and income levels for subsidized housing that are now set by the federal government.

"That sort of thing terrifies us," said Linda Couch, deputy director of the Washington-based National Low Income Housing Coalition. "When you talk about freedom at the public housing level, you're talking about shifting resources away from the lowest-income families and making the houses that do exist for that population less and less affordable."

Proposed changes in Baltimore appear to be subtle in the first year, but Graziano said the housing authority is still deciding what modifications could be made in the future.

The program has sparked controversy in some cities, such as Atlanta, where officials established mandatory eviction for unemployed residents. That plan was delayed this summer after the City Council passed a resolution against the evictions. In 2003, Philadelphia used Moving to Work to impose a seven-year limit on Section 8 housing assistance.

Graziano said he is not considering either of those ideas for Baltimore.

The housing authority sought entry into the program for years but was repeatedly passed over by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This March, the federal agency agreed to let Baltimore take part. Now the city must submit a plan to HUD explaining what it hopes to accomplish in the first year.

A hearing on that plan will take place Oct. 4 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Pleasant View Gardens, Aisquith and Fayette streets.

Of the $290 million in federal funds that Baltimore's housing authority expects to receive next year for subsidized rental programs, more than 71 percent would fall under the program's purview. The amount - which includes funding for operations, Section 8 and public housing - will be capped for seven years.

In addition to having more budget flexibility, the city will also be allowed to keep a $48 million reserve that had been earmarked for Section 8. Under the old model, those unused funds would have gone back to the federal government.

Graziano said he did not yet know how the windfall will be used.

For Baltimore's 9,832 public housing households and roughly 10,000 Section 8 households, officials say Moving to Work will bring a series of changes.

Public-housing applicants will undergo credit checks to make certain they have paid rent in the past. Caseworkers can deny those who have not. Once accepted, residents will face a $10 late fee if rent is paid after the 10th of the month.

Section 8 vouchers issued in Baltimore will no longer be valid outside the city. In the past, recipients could take the subsidy to other counties or out of state. Residents who are currently using a voucher outside the city - there are about 225 - must move back to Baltimore within 18 months.

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