n an economy where prices on rental properties continue to skyrocket while the job market remains sluggish, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Westwood) has an idea. He’s introduced radical legislation to reform the federal Section 8 low-income housing program, a reform that would force many in need to fend for themselves to obtain housing.
Chabot’s expressed motivation behind the bill: saving taxpayer dollars.
Introduced last month, the proposal would place a five-year time limit for those receiving housing assistance, impose work requirements of 20 hours per week for recipients 18 years and older and restrict felons or undocumented immigrants from receiving funding.
The bill includes exemptions for disabled recipients, elderly residents and families with young children. Also, the bill places veterans at a higher priority for receiving vouchers.
When asked how the bill would affect residents here in Cincinnati, Chabot responded with the following statement:
“If passed, this bill would result in meaningful reforms to the Section 8 program — a program that was intended to provide temporary assistance to those among us who are struggling, not become a permanent way of life. Provisions of this bill, the work requirement for example, would encourage personal responsibility and self-reliance, thus strengthening Cincinnati neighborhoods. In addition, as more and more veterans return from having served in Iraq and Afghanistan to a tough economy, it seems only fair and appropriate that they should receive a priority in available Section 8 vouchers.”
While Chabot sings the praises of the bill, Linda Couch, senior vice president for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, calls it unnecessary and ill-conceived.
Of the households receiving assistance, Couch says, half to two-thirds are seniors and people with disabilities. Of the remaining third, most of the recipients additionally receive assistance from either welfare or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which already contain work or education requirements.
Chabot’s so-called sweeping reform would affect only a small amount of recipients and simply serve to make their lives more challenging, she adds. For example, Couch notes the ambiguous language in the proposal surrounding childcare for families with children younger than six years old.
“It says if you can demonstrate that you can’t find childcare, we’ll give you a pass,” she says. “Well who’s going to judge that and what does it mean? Is it quality childcare? Is that licensed, is it in your neighborhood, or is it the childcare that you have to take three busses to get to? There’s a lot of subjectivity there.”
With a shortage of affordable housing, Couch says time limits would ultimately put families out on the streets. It’s a myth that imposing time limits will somehow magically allow families to acquire the ability to find affordable housing, she adds.
According to John Schrider, a Southwest Ohio Legal Aid attorney, the average two-bedroom apartment in Cincinnati costs about $750 per month. To afford the cost, a person must make $14 per hour, almost double the minimum wage. Those who qualify for the program earn less than $12 an hour and pay somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of rent, or essentially $250 to $300 per month of that $750.
For those earning full-time minimum wage, that leaves about $1,030 to live on for the month, a meager amount in today’s economy, Schrider says. He thinks the voucher program stands as the only means many poor people have to afford quality housing. When taxpayers are complaining about government spending for housing assistance, they might be a bit hypocritical, Schrider contends.
“About $20 billion is going into government affordable rental housing programs,” he says. “We have another government subsidized housing program and that’s $170 billion every year — it’s the tax deduction that homeowners get for their mortgage interest payment and real estate taxes.”
On the West Side, Pete Witte, board chairman of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) sees a number of positive aspects to Chabot’s proposal. He believes components such as time limits on able-bodied adults should be explored, along with giving priority housing to seniors, the disabled and veterans.
Problems in the current program exist in the form of misuse by tenants and landlords, Witte says. He cites examples such as additional adult friends or extended family members sharing the housing without reporting that additional household income. Witte emphasizes he’d like to see reform to ensure those who really need the program are the ones receiving vouchers.
“That’s the dichotomy when you have an economy like this — the need goes up, but the dollar afforded to housing authorities is going down,” Witte says. “That’s why I say I’m very interested in having discussions on making sure that program is not misused.”
Witte doesn’t believe, however, in Chabot’s ongoing dialogue about the West Side suffering blight or experiencing a drop in property values due to the surfeit of Section 8 housing. CMHA continually monitors all rental properties to ensure they meet strict housing quality standards, Witte says. Some of the better housing options in the area are those receiving subsidies.
“I know this for a fact — the most blighted properties are ones not getting subsidies,” Witte adds.
Robert Newman, a Cincinnati attorney and low-income housing advocate, sees Chabot’s proposal as an attack on the poor, a way to punish people for not living up to a certain means.
Newman echoes Witte’s sentiments about the negative perception of subsidized housing. CMHA regularly receives a 98-percent overall approval rating in regard to housing maintenance, he says. Also, Newman points to a number of studies and articles stating Section 8 housing has no ill-effects on property values.
“The housing authority screens people for residency, they want to make sure that they’re going to be good neighbors,” he says. “I think we can leave it to the housing authority to determine who its tenants are going to be and not have that decided in Washington by Steve Chabot.”©