Time Limits for Public Housing Units Under Consideration

All over the country, public housing officials agree that many of their residents often suffer from a feeling of entitlement that leads to generations of family members residing in public housing and blocking the way for other needy families who are on wait lists that can span up to 10 years.

Now, President Barack Obama’s administration and Congress are having a rare point of agreement on new measures that potentially would limit the time a person could hold a Section 8 certificate or live in a public housing unit. The new policy seems to be well-received in the Capitol and the only debate seems to be just how far to take it.

At this point, most seem to be batting around the idea of limiting residents to five years with a Section 8 voucher and five years in a public housing unit. After that, they would have to transition to the private housing market. One caveat is the elderly and disabled would be exempted.

Local officials at the Revere Housing Authority (RHA) said they are paying close attention to the debate, and while they acknowledge the frustrating problem of long-term residents in what is supposed to be short-term transitional housing, they aren’t sure that instituting time limits will work here.

“People in transitional housing tend to think of this housing as generational housing,” said RHA Executive Director Linda Shaw. “In Revere, when this housing was put up, it was for veterans to get a hand up until they could do better. That isn’t what’s happening now in all cases…We have a lot of people out there floundering through.”

RHA Board Chair George Anzuoni said he tries to always remind residents that public housing is not a long-term situation.

“It’s important people realize this is transitional housing,” he said. “It’s not right for people to stay for so long. However, you’re stuck at one end and the other end. It’s a Catch-22. The programs are there. The tone is set, but the economic environment in this country now is such that there’s nowhere for some resident to go. We don’t want to push people out, but we do have to have people understand this is transitional housing and not a permanent residence.”

That is compounded by the fact that the waiting list in Revere for public housing is currently seven years – and at one time it stretched to nearly 10 years.

That waiting list in Revere – and similar ones all over the country – grows longer in part because many residents of public housing tend to stay for long periods of time and not move on to bigger and better things. And with so many veterans coming back from war and seeking housing, that situation is coming to a head.

There are local stories of some who have lived in the RHA since the development was built in the 1940s. There are other stories of residents trying to make improvements to their units, such as putting up privacy fences without approval.

Once, when the RHA tried to tear down a privacy fence years ago, they were stopped by a resident who indicated the fence was a memorial to her father – who had lived in her public housing unit before she took over the lease.

Such things are symptoms, federal housing officials believe, of a system that is broken.

Some housing authorities, such as in Tacoma, WA and San Bernardino, CA, have already gotten approval to institute the five-year time limits in their public housing. By all accounts, they have found some initial successes.

In Revere, Shaw and Anzuoni have their doubts though.

They said there might be some who are motivated to leave by instituting a deadline, but there are also just as many people who are not going to be able to leave.

“There’s not a lot of low-income housing stock,” said Anzuoni. “What do you do with the people who can’t come out? It could be a mother and her kids. Where would you tell them to go? You just tell them to hit the road; five years are up? I would like to see the person hard enough to do that.”

Shaw said social problems are some of the greatest contributors to the  generational living aspect of public housing.

“There’s often not much we can do,” she said. “You have children having children. They are usually dropouts and have no employment skills. That whole aspect of the generational situation I find starts happening between the ages of 16 and 35. They come in and tell us their mother is going to a nursing home and they want to take over as head of household. If they walk in with arms full of babies – and they do – we have to look at that. We usually do not take that unit away.”

She said if there were time limits passed, it would result in a lot of backlash.

“I don’t think the plan will work; we would have people picketing,” she said. “It’s just a tough nut to crack. It’s like welfare. There are people who abuse the system and that’s what makes it bad. There are also a lot of people who do not abuse it.”

And it certainly isn’t unheard of for people not to abuse public housing in Revere.

In fact, most abide by the rules, and some have even used RHA programming to move on to better jobs and to homeownership. Through the RHA’s self-sufficiency program, one person has been able to save money to go to law school, while another was able to save money for a down payment on a home. Both were able to transition out of public housing as a result.

“However, we only have 34 people out of 899 participating, and that’s just 3 percent,” said Shaw. “We need to step that game up a little more in terms of participation and funding for the program.”

Anzuoni concluded by saying there may be more problems coming from any solution.

“Everyone is in a fix here,” he said. “To get to the fix, we’re in a fix.” Currently, both Congress and the Obama Administration are debating the merits of the new time limits program, and most reports indicate that there is a high-likelihood that Section 8 vouchers will have some sort of time limitation nationwide.

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