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Public Housing Program Realities

Public housing programs began as a way to provide safe and decent rentals for low-income families, people with disabilities, and the elderly. Options range from single-family homes to apartments in high-rise buildings, with many other types in between. These programs, managed by approximately 3,300 local authorities, have created homes for around 1.2 million households, providing low-income families with rents they can afford.

The Federal public housing budget is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is currently under the guidance of Secretary Ben Carson. HUD also provides professional assistance for the technical planning, development, and management of these projects.

Many myths have arisen about these programs. Many people believe that they have been a failure. Many Liberals think these programs have merely epitomized top-down, bland urban planning, and concentrated poverty. On the Conservative side of things, many see public housing programs like an old, socialist scheme and nothing more than a relic.

It would be nice if these programs were not necessary, but the current need is a stark reality, not a myth. Still, we should be aware of various myths floating around.

The Great Escape
The talk-of-the-town says public housing is a last resort, and everyone living in it is trying to escape. That's not the case. It seems that far more people are trying to get into subsidized shelter. Don't believe it? Nearly every one of the 3,300 authorities in the United States has a long waiting list. Surveys conducted by HUD's Office of Policy Development consistently show a high level of overall satisfaction among the families using this service.[1] Residents are currently demanding solutions to problems with management and maintenance, but surveys still concluded an overall feeling of contentment.

Economically Mixed Areas
Some proposals suggest that the best way to assist the residents of public housing is to dismantle their neighborhoods and mandate that they relocate to "more economically mixed areas." The counterpoint is that this assumes that the cause of problems is the concentration of low-income people living in a given community, rather than the lack of resources and services in those communities. This opposite view holds that residents don't feel a need to "escape," and they don't want to be relocated. They want to see their communities improved and strengthened.

It's All Falling Apart
There is an extreme view that the buildings are crumbling wrecks with criminals swinging from every rafter. We can't be naive and think every area is wonderfully safe, and the now demolished Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis and Cabrini-Green in Chicago are good examples why. There are problematic areas, but those are not representative of all projects.

Most areas are actually in good shape. Most meet or exceed the federal standard. Of course, that doesn't mean everything's perfect. We are often told not to make negative sweeping generalizations, but making positive sweeping generalizations is just as inaccurate. Some of these developments deal with mold, plumbing issues, and other maintenance problems like stalled elevators and inadequate trash pick-up. These problems are often a result of policy choices and funding cuts.

Helping the Wrong People
Another common feeling is that public housing serves “the wrong kind of people.” The actual demographics are revealing, though:[2]

16 percent elderly, non-disabled, no children
15 percent elderly, disabled
16 percent non-elderly, no children, disabled
4 percent non-elderly, with children, disabled
35 percent female-headed households with children

Poverty is a uniform characteristic. Social Security is the primary source of income for 55% of the large senior population, and 30% subsist primarily on salary and wages. 89 percent of residents are classed as “very low income,” living on less than 50% of the national median wage.[3]

In other words 86 percent of residents are single-parent families and those who are elderly, disabled, or both. Almost all are destitute. Are these “the wrong people” to receive help?

While there are cases of people abusing system, most studies conclude that it would be better to isolate those cases and disable their dependency on the system, rather than give everybody else a bad name.

Those are the myths. Let's move on to the realities.

Who's Eligible?
A person's eligibility is based on the following criteria:

What is a person's annual gross income?
Does a person qualify as elderly?
Does an individual or a family qualify as dealing with a disability?
Are applicants U.S. citizens or people with eligible legal immigration status?

When it comes to annual gross income, the limits set by HUD for low-income eligibility are 80% of an area's median income level, and very-low-income eligibility at 50% of the area's median income level.

If people are eligible, the housing authority will conduct background and reference checks to ensure they will be good tenants. Anyone found to have habits considered detrimental to other residents will be denied.

How to Apply
The application is through your local Housing Authority or HUD office.

The Application Process
You must make your application in person, and in writing. Your agent may assist you. Here's a list of the information you'll need to provide to determine your eligibility:

Your name, sex, and date of birth. (You will need this information for all persons who would be living with you, along with their relationship to you)
Address and phone number
Family characteristics or circumstances (are you or a family member a veteran, or living in substandard housing)
Names, contact info, and addresses of all current and previous landlords
Your estimated household income for the next 12 months, plus the sources
Names and addresses of your employers and banks

You and your family will most likely have to go through a home interview, too.

You'll need to give copies of birth certificates, tax returns, and any other required documents to the agent for verification purposes.

You will get a notification if you are deemed eligible. If it's a "yes," you'll be put on a waiting list. If you get a "no," you'll be given the details as to why you've been deemed ineligible. You can request an informal hearing, which can reverse the decision.

Signing the Lease
If you accept the offered house or apartment, the authority will have you sign a lease, and a security deposit may be required. Go over the contract thoroughly with the agent and understand your responsibilities and those of the landlord. Don't sign anything until you truly understand your obligations.

Rent Payment
The rent you pay is called the Total Tenant Payment (TTP) and will be determined by your family's expected gross annual income, minus deductions.

Housing Authority's Responsibilities
The responsibilities of the housing authority are the management and operation of the local program, including the following ongoing functions:

Lease compliance
Set security deposit rates, determine excessive utility consumption, and property damages
Perform reexaminations periodically
Relocate families from property to property to reduce over or under crowding, for property repairs or renovations, or by tenant request
Lease termination
Maintain the property in decent, safe, and sanitary conditions

Time Limit
Typically, you can stay as long as you make sure you comply with the lease. If a reexamination determines that you and your family's gross annual income is sufficient to obtain housing on the private market, the housing authority will decide whether you stay in public housing or need to move on.

Most families will not choose public housing as their first or preferred option. If you can't afford your first choice, though, it represents a viable option and is not something to fear. Many low-income families have used these very low-cost options as a starting point where they can save a bit, get their credit rating in order, and move on to another option. If this is what fits your budget, don't let the myths put you off.