Carson wants poor to pay more rent, work for assistance

HUD Secretary Ben Carson on Wednesday unveiled a major overhaul of the rental-housing system, proposing to increase the share of rent that low-income households must pay before receiving assistance and allow public housing authorities to impose work requirements.

The proposal to reshape the way HUD helps 4.5 million people meet their rent is part of a broader Trump administration push to link anti-poverty programs to employment.

Carson — who often refers to his own up-from-nothing life story as a parable for the poor and said last year that poverty is “a state of mind” — has long called on HUD to focus on helping people get off assistance, rather than expanding the benefits it provides.

The current system, Carson said on a conference call with reporters, creates “perverse incentives, including discouraging these families from earning more income and becoming self-sufficient.”

Rental assistance recipients currently spend about 30 percent of their adjusted income on housing, with subsidies picking up the rest. Under the proposal HUD is sending to Congress, recipients would have to contribute 35 percent of their gross income or 35 percent of their income from working 15 hours a week at the federal minimum wage.

Public housing agencies — and owners, in the case of project-based assistance — would be able to establish minimum work requirements for recipients, excluding people over the age of 65 and the disabled.

Meanwhile, tenants’ incomes would be verified less frequently — once every three years, instead of annually — to “encourage renters to increase their income without adversely impacting assistance for up to three years,” Carson said.

Three rental assistance programs comprise about 80 percent of total HUD appropriations: Section 8 tenant-based rental assistance, including the Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers; Section 8 project-based rental assistance; and public housing.

Under the proposal, some of the poorest tenants would see their rents triple. Every non-elderly, non-disabled household would have to pay a minimum of $150 a month in rent. Right now, the minimum amount for the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program and public housing is $50.

One of the reasons the administration has given for overhauling the assistance is that as rental costs continue to rise, more and more of HUD’s budget is eaten up helping the same number of families.

“Every year, it takes more money, millions of dollars more, to serve the same number of households,” Carson said on the call. “It’s widely accepted that only 1 in 4 families who need and actually qualify for assistance [actually receive it] …It’s clear that from a budget perspective and from a human point of view, the current system is unsustainable.”

A 2013 study by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that only 24 percent of eligible households receive assistance.

Yet housing advocates condemned the Carson plan, saying it would add to the burdens of the poor.

“Despite claims that these harmful proposals will increase ‘self-sufficiency,’ rent hikes, de facto time limits, and arbitrary work requirements will only leave more people without stable housing, making it harder for them to climb the economic ladder,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in an emailed statement.

“Proposing these changes under the guise of saving the government money, just months after giving massive tax breaks to wealthy people and corporations, is the height of cruel hypocrisy,” Yentel said.

To be sure, the chances that Congress will take up and pass the measure in the six months left before the midterm elections are slim. Lawmakers so far have rejected the Trump administration’s efforts to cut HUD’s funding: The fiscal year 2018 omnibus included a nearly 10 percent boost to the department’s budget, including increased funding for programs the White House sought to cut.

Still, the overhaul announced Wednesday, a joint project with the White House budget office, is the latest in a series of Trump administration moves to rein in anti-poverty programs.

President Donald Trump this month signed an executive order directing federal agencies to “do everything within [their] authority to empower individuals by providing opportunities for work, including by investing in federal programs that are effective at moving people into the workforce and out of poverty.”

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, meanwhile, this year started allowing states to mandate employment for certain Medicaid recipients, and House Republicans included a food stamp work requirement in a package of proposals for the 2018 farm bill this month.

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