The Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) faced a difficult choice. With fewer dollars from the federal government, the housing authority had to “thin the soup,” said THA Executive Director Michael Mirra.
There would be less public housing to go around, because the federal government was going to cut its funding to THA by $3 million. In order to make up for that shortfall, the agency would have to kick out 400 of the 4,800 households it serves.
Instead of evicting residents, THA decided to reduce how much help each household gets.
Clients receiving housing vouchers — which allow clients to live in market-rate housing with lower rent — now pay a little bit more rent each month. They have to leave the program after five years, with exceptions made for people facing hardships at the end of their tenure.
The rules apply only to new clients; seniors and disabled people are exempted. Anticipating more cuts to federal funding, Mirra said THA may expand these to include everyone except seniors and disabled people.
“THA has never cut anyone from its programs for lack of money, and our board and staff have no appetite to start,” Mirra said.
Tacoma was allowed to make this change because it is a Moving to Work organization, a designation the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has given to 39 of its 3,200 housing authorities across the country. Moving to Work housing authorities are allowed to set different rental structures and experiment with other rule changes to find more efficient ways to serve people and help them graduate from the program.
The Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) is preparing its own changes under Moving to Work. SHA announced in June plans to set flat rents that will gradually increase every few years. People can stay in their housing indefinitely, but their rent will gradually increase to just below market rate. Currently, tenants pay 30 percent of their income. SHA has not released the proposed rental structure.
Some housing advocates want more Moving to Work sites because they free up housing for those on waiting lists and enable housing authorities to handle budget cuts. They’re calling on Congress to authorize more housing authorities to become Moving to Work sites.
Others fear Moving to Work removes accountability. By allowing housing authorities to change their own systems, HUD cedes authority and eliminates oversight, said Linda Couch, senior vice president for policy and outreach at the Low Income Housing Coalition.
“Local groups become the regulator,” she said. “They’re the ones who have to keep an eye out for what’s happening, because HUD doesn’t have the authority or capacity to do that.”
Moving to Work is a product of the Clinton Administration, which implemented sweeping reforms to welfare programs. As a result of Clinton-era changes, clients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) can receive support for a maximum of 60 months throughout their lifetime and must participate in employment programs. Previously, there was no cap.
Lee Jones, a spokesperson for HUD’s regional office in Seattle, said the changes made to federal programs at the time embodied a straightforward approach: “If you just get them a job, force them to work, everything will be fine and wonderful.”
Developed to allow housing authorities to change their rent structures and insert work programs into their operations, Moving to Work morphed during the Great Recession, becoming a way for housing authorities to respond to huge funding shortfalls.
HUD cut funding to the Tacoma Housing Authority by $1.2 million in 2013 — less than the expected $3 million loss but still a significant dent in its $45 million annual budget.
Meanwhile, demand for housing continues to grow.
Mirra said THA decided to ask clients to pay more for their housing and is using the money saved to bring 120 more households from the waiting list into the program. THA also used the money to link housing to McCarver Elementary School to support formerly homeless families with children. The group also started a rapid rehousing program, which uses minimal intervention to get formerly homeless people into market-rate housing.
Mirra said the agency is attempting to do the most with what it’s got, but he knows it’s not enough.
“While THA’s board and staff feel confident about our policy choices, and while we have strong community support for them, these choices are not occasions to celebrate,” he said. “We would not make some of them if our communities did not have such a shortage of affordable housing or if our resources were adequate enough to meet it.”
THA is prepared to give exemptions to people who are struggling, but eventually they will have to leave. Mirra worries about the day he has to ask a woman who has just given birth to go.
“That will be a hard day for Tacoma Housing Authority,” he said. “We’ll do it not because we like to do it, but because there’s a mother just like her on the waiting list. But still, that will be a hard day.”
While it is not prepared to evict tenants, the SHA is going down a similar path.
SHA has cut its budget by $16.3 million since 2011. In 2014, SHA’s budget was $182 million.
SHA provides Section 8 housing vouchers to 9,200 households and provides apartments in SHA-owned buildings to 5,900 people.
There are 9,300 people waiting to get into buildings owned by SHA. To get Section 8 vouchers, people have to enter a lottery to make the waiting list. SHA last opened the waiting list in 2013 and received 24,000 applications for 2,000 spots.
By raising rents, SHA is urging clients to improve their employment and salaries in hopes they will move on. As clients leave for market-rate housing, SHA can help the 9,300 people waiting for SHA’s public housing units and Section 8 vouchers.
Moving to Work has helped housing authorities weather difficult budget times, but it was created to find solutions.
SHA plans to hire someone to monitor its new rental structure and determine if it’s working. SHA will report the data to HUD, which is supposed to use the data to set policy.
Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities in Washington, D.C., said she and others want Congress to improve HUD’s oversight of Moving to Work to glean better information.
“We’ve been urging HUD for years to invest in their capacity to look at the innovations taking place in the [Moving to Work] world,” Zaterman said.
So far HUD hasn’t learned much, said Couch, of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“We’re not testing policies,” Couch said. “We’re just throwing policy out there in the wind and saying, ‘We think this is a good idea.’”
This article won Second Place in the Government/Politics category at the 2014 Washington Press Association Awards