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Chalmers Courts with swingset

Advocates say HUD proposal to raise rents could hurt struggling families in Austin

Friday, May 4, 2018 by Syeda Hasan

Watchdog groups in Austin say a plan to raise rents for millions of people who get federal housing assistance would hurt the area’s most vulnerable residents.

“What this will do is increase housing costs, force more families to choose between food and the rent, medical care and the rent, utilities and the rent,” Maddie Sloan, a manager with the nonprofit Texas Appleseed, said. “And (it) will ultimately force more families into homelessness and housing instability.”

Under current law, most people receiving housing assistance pay 30 percent of their adjusted income toward rent. Last week, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson proposed that renters pay 35 percent of their gross income. For some very low-income residents, the change would triple their rent.

Sloan calls these proposed changes counterproductive and cruel.

Renee Neal, a single mother of five, lives with her family at Chalmers Courts, a public housing complex in East Austin. She moved in about three years ago after a difficult time in her life.

“I had went to jail for some traffic tickets and lost everything I had, because I was living paycheck to paycheck,” Neal said. “But I got out, and I had a letter from the Housing Authority that I was going to be going to orientation to get my apartment. That was immense to me, because I needed stability for my children.”

Neal also found a job at Austin Energy with the help of Jobs Plus ATX, a training and education program run by the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, or HACA. For the first time in six years, she has built up a savings and is making plans to one day move out of public housing.

But Neal worries about the changes HUD proposed. In addition to raising rent, the proposal would allow public housing authorities to impose new work requirements on residents. That idea is troubling for Neal, who is a contract worker.

“If I get let go, would that mean I’m at risk of losing my place?” she said. “Even though, I’m not just a lazy person who wants to take advantage of the government, I’m definitely willing to be employed, but if there is a gap of more than two weeks of me getting more employment, will I get an eviction notice?”

The HUD proposal, which requires congressional approval, is part of a broader push by the Trump administration to strengthen work requirements for safety net programs.

An analysis by the Center on Budget Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank, found that most of the people who would be affected by a spike in minimum rent are families with children.

Michael Gerber, president and CEO of the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, said the agency is concerned by the HUD proposal and has questions about how such a change would be implemented.

“When we’re talking about work requirements,” he said, “how do we balance out saying, ‘Go to work,’ with giving people the job training and skills and not putting their housing at risk in the process?”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT.

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