House passes major reforms to public-housing programs 427 to 0 | St. Louis Public Radio

House passes major reforms to public-housing programs 427 to 0

Feb 3, 2016

For those who see nothing but divisiveness in Congress, Tuesday’s vote backing the most significant changes in public housing policy in decades may be a refreshing surprise.

The bill, HR 3700, sponsored Missouri Reps. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth and Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, reforms “19 areas and 65 to 70 provisions” of existing law, under the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Agriculture Department’s Rural Housing Service.

According to Luetkemeyer, “The success of housing programs should not be judged by the number of federal dollars spent. Instead, we are looking outside the box to streamline HUD and RHS policies and eliminate duplicative programs and waste.”

For Cleaver, the bill represents what is possible when Congress works the way it should. In floor comments, he urged his colleagues to support the measure even though there are provisions that he would not have included: “Compromise is not capitulation."

Cleaver, who lived in public housing in Wichita Falls, Tex., until age 11, praised the bipartisan agreement. “I know personally the importance of having a safe, affordable home.”

Both men pointed to provisions in the bill giving public housing authorities greater flexibility with up to 20 percent of the funds they receive to make minor repairs or even major renovations to improve living conditions for residents. Luetkemeyer said the added flexibility “makes common sense.” Cleaver, who had wanted such flexibility for up to 40 percent of those funds, called the change “absolutely, critically important.”

Cleaver told St. Louis Public Radio that when he grew up, public housing projects didn’t have child-care centers. That meant that many of the mothers who were labeled “lazy” were actually staying home to watch their children because they couldn’t afford child care to take time to find jobs. Now, he said, the added flexibility will let public housing directors do such things as adding child-care centers.

Luetkemeyer said the bill will improve access to housing and give people better and safer places to live.

Over-income Residents

Republicans and Democrats differ on the provision dealing with so-called “over income” residents in public housing -- families who earn more than the allowable limit to qualify for subsidized housing. Cleaver said the issue got attention when the New York Times reported on a millionaire living in public housing.

These housing units are across from a community center in the Clinton-Peabody complex on the near south side of St. Louis.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

“On the surface, it sounds horrible, but when you dig into it, you find out that this wealthy individual was staying with his ill mother because she wouldn’t leave public housing,” Cleaver said.

He added he can identify with that situation because of his 93-year-old father. While the senior Mr. Cleaver does not live in public housing, Cleaver said, “They’re not going to take him out of his house.”

Last July, an audit by HUD’s inspector general’s office found that in 2014 “public housing authorities provided … assistance to as many as 25,226 families whose income exceeded … eligibility income limits.”

“Of these 25,226 families, the audit found that 17,761 had earned more than the qualifying amount for more than 1 year,” according to the audit. It estimated that HUD would pay more than $104 million over the next year for public housing units occupied by over-income families “that otherwise could have been used to house low-income families.”

While the issues generate a significant amount of debate, even Luetkemeyer told St. Louis Public Radio it represents a “very, very minuscule” percentage of those in public housing. “It’s something like two-tenths of a percent.” He said it sounds high because of the number of people living in public housing across the U.S.

Under the bill, public housing residents whose income is 120-percent of the median for their area for two consecutive years may be charged market-rate rents, but Luetkemeyer said the bill also gives public housing authorities the ability to consider extenuating circumstances. Those who can afford market-rate housing should not get subsidized housing, he added:

“That’s all we’re asking for. Generally I believe, they’re going to have to move those folks out after a period of time.”

This is a sensitive issue for Cleaver, who said, “I do have some difficulties with the fact that we’re going to possibly kick some people out of public housing who should be there.”

Cleaver, who is respected among his peers for being very even tempered, said, “I get very angry … when I hear people demeaning people who live in public housing. They have no idea what’s going on in public housing.” He said he doesn’t discount that some may try to abuse the system, but he doesn’t know anyone with the means to live elsewhere who says "I just got to find me a public housing unit, I mean by golly, that’s my life goal.”

Cleaver said his dad worked three jobs to get his family out of public housing. “It’s just a little irritating for those of us who are right there and understand it to listen to people who maybe have never even driven by a project and have all of these stereotypical ideas about what goes on.”

While HUD declined to comment on the bill, the department Tuesday released an advance notice of a proposed administrative rule to address the issue of “over-income” residents. Both Luetkemeyer and Cleaver seemed amused by the department’s timing, especially since the department said it agrees with the inspector general’s assessment that it already has the authority to evict these residents.  

Both representatives said they prefer to address the issue through legislation rather than an administrative rule.

“They had the ability to do some of this before and they didn’t do it, and our (bill) is a nudge to tell them … enough is enough,” Luetkemeyer said when told of the proposed rulemaking. Cleaver said he didn’t question whether HUD has the authority to take action, but he said, “I would much rather codify the changes so that another secretary coming in next year couldn’t make additional changes.”

Cleaver says he expect the Senate to join the House in approving the bill and that the president will sign the measure

Veterans and former foster care children

The bill ensures that veterans have fair access to housing and homeless assistance. It also extends the time young people who are aging out of foster care may live in public housing, according to Luetkemeyer.

Other provisions include:

  • Improve condo ownership opportunities through improvements to the FHA mortgage insurance program
  • Increase access to rural housing loans for low- and moderate-income households to purchase, build or rehab homes
  • Streamline inspections and spell out requirements for housing unit owners to make needed repairs
  • Extend the period for which a family could use a family unification housing voucher and increases the ceiling for the Family Unification Program voucher age requirement

Luetkemeyer says his staff has not yet identified potential Senate sponsors for the measure. More than 30 national and state organizations support the bill.