GRUMET: Austin sees value of housing safety net — even if D.C. doesn’t

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A woman makes her way into her home with her children last year in Chalmers Courts, one of the Austin Housing Authority’s affordable housing communities.

Mary Apostolou is closely watching the developments in Washington, D.C. If it comes down to it, she figures, she could part with her car — the practical sedan she uses to ferry neighbors in East Austin to the grocery store, doctors’ appointments and the occasional trip to the hospital.

“I still have a car payment and insurance,” the retired nanny told me. In her estimation, that’s the only place left to cut.

A few weeks ago, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson unveiled a proposal to raise the rents on millions of households that receive federal housing aid. “The current system isn’t working very well,” Carson told reporters, according to the Washington Post. “Doing nothing is not an option.”

But apparently doing something heartless and myopic is.

Carson’s proposal would require public housing tenants to put a larger percentage of their meager incomes toward their rent, a cruel squeeze considering these tenants get housing aid because they have very little money — but more on that in a minute. Under the HUD secretary’s scenario, Apostolou said the monthly rent for her unit in the Chalmers Courts complex could go from $279 to $360 — though she could catch a break if the rent hike doesn’t apply to seniors.

Be grateful for your good fortune if you don’t know how deeply an $81 rent hike cuts for someone like Apostolou, 66, who stretches her dollars just to meet her grocery bills.

“Toward the end of the month, we’re all scratching the bottom of the barrel, reaching for the canned goods,” said Apostolou, who compares notes with others as a tenants’ representative on the local housing authority board and a volunteer at the Central Texas Food Bank.

ALSO READ: Report says Austin workers need to make $23 an hour to afford rent

Carson’s rent-raising gambit would need Congress’ approval, and it’s unclear anyone on the Hill wants to touch it in a midterm election year. Political will is a fickle thing. This is an awkward time for Carson to lecture poor people on money management, after he and his wife ordered a $31,000 mahogany dining set on the taxpayers’ dime for Carson’s HUD office. (Carson canceled the galling purchase after it came to light).

But the stereotypes that have animated welfare overhaul efforts over the years — that people on public assistance are lazy and disinterested in improving their lives without the prodding of the federal government — are demeaning, ignorant and enduring. You haven’t heard the last of this discussion.

When I caught up last week with Michael Gerber, president and CEO of Austin’s housing authority, the agency’s tenants did not have the look of a people under political siege. The authority was holding its carnival-themed Senior Mayfest at an East Austin bingo hall, with generously donated catfish platters, balloon-animal hats for everyone and a clown playing a small accordion. The smell of buttered popcorn hung in the air.

“Public housing residents are remarkably just like every other person,” Gerber said. “They love their kids. They want to keep their family together. They want to work. They want to have strong communities. They want to have a more productive and successful and healthier life.”

Typically, they’re in public housing, Gerber said, because “they have fallen victim to some great challenge. What’s the saying? ‘We’re all two paychecks away from losing our homes?‘”

Some tenants lost a job, lost a spouse, lost a pension, suffered an injury or never got the proper care for mental illness. Often, they’re sharing their roof with others.

By managing public housing complexes and providing vouchers to help cover the rent at privately-owned apartments, Austin’s housing authority is serving about 19,000 people as we speak. Nearly half of them are kids. More than a quarter are disabled, and about 10 percent are seniors.

That leaves roughly 3,000 tenants who are able-bodied adults, typically single parents. Carson’s proposed rent hike seems to be designed to get them “back to work.” But many are already working; they just don’t make a lot of money. For the year, they might pull in $11,000 to $13,000, Gerber said.

“Those are the people that we’re pushing very, very hard to get into job training programs,” Gerber said. The Austin housing authority has seen promising results with an initiative — Jobs Plus — it’s testing at two housing complexes, he said, using an older HUD grant to provide access to job training programs and other support. In its first year, the program in Austin helped 113 families boost their income by a combined total of $183,176, and it paid out $15,000 in child care assistance to help working parents.

Sort of the carrot to Carson’s stick.

I understand the desire to make sure a safety net doesn’t become a hammock. But that fear ignores the reality of why people sometimes slip on life’s high-wire act. Maybe they need more education or training. Maybe they simply caught a tough break and need an opportunity to regroup.

Either way, you help people bounce back by making the net stronger and more buoyant — not by taking it away.

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