February 22, 2013

Housing Authority hopes ‘Moving to Work’ increases affordable housing options

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By Robert Holly/For CU-CitizenAccess

The Housing Authority of Champaign County recently joined the Moving to Work program in an effort to increase jobs and education for those receiving federal assistance.

The federal program gives local housing authorities wider flexibility in how to use the millions of dollars they receive from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It also requires residents to seek employment or education if they want to continue receiving assistance.

The Housing Authority hopes the program will allow it to reverse the county’s growing problems which range from condemned households to a shortage of affordable housing. Currently, the authority provides about 1,500 vouchers to low-income households that can use the vouchers for subsidizing their rent. The authority also has 354 public housing units, down from more than 600 because of development plans.

The authority receives about $15.7 million from HUD, in addition to about $1 million from rent payments, investments and vending machines in public housing.

With the Moving to Work program, the authority hopes to find new and effective ways to manage affordable housing within the county. One strategy is to implement a self-sufficiency program that encourages low-income residents to find jobs or education.

Under that strategy, low-income households have to meet regular self-sufficiency standards focused on employment and educational objectives.  The standards are focused on “personal accountability and financial responsibility, demonstrated through consistent employment” and are “appropriate to the maximum skill level achievable.”

“So, if all that they can do is wash dishes, that’s great,” Patty Smith, the Housing Authority’s director of capital programs, said recently. “But, they need to be trying to do something.”

Individuals receiving housing assistance are recertified on a regular basis.

On the first recertification, a household will have to develop a self-sufficiency plan. By the second recertification, one adult member must be employed at least 20 hours a week or enrolled in an educational program. By the sixth recertification, all adult members of a household must be employed at least 20 hours per week.

Before the Moving to Work program, the authority did not enforce any self-sufficiency standards. With the changes, certain “hardship criteria” will also exist for households that are trying but can’t find employment.

“Prior to this, these weren’t mandatory – they were only voluntary,” Smith said. “So, someone thought, ‘Oh, it’s getting too hard, I can just quit.’ But now, it’s tied to their housing, and if they want housing, if they want to be subsidized, then they have to be trying.”

The self-sufficiency changes began Nov. 1.

With the flexibility gained from the program, the authority also lowered the age definition of “elderly” to 55 years and eliminated household-utility allowances.

Smith said the authority can “do anything within reason” with federal money. HUD only stipulates housing authorities follow environmental regulations and provides fair housing by not discriminating against applicants.

“It allows housing authorities flexibility to not follow HUD regulations, with the exception of a few areas,” Smith said.

For example, the authority had about $12 million for housing assistance payments in 2012. But, instead of devoting the entire $12 million to housing assistance, the authority decided to assign about $11 million, said Matt Garard, the authority’s director of finance.

Garard said the bulk of the $1 million difference was redirected to fund demolition and development projects – such as 99 units in Lakeside Terrace in Urbana – along with other expenses.

This redistribution of funds would violate HUD regulations for a non-Moving to Work agency, but now all the authority has to do to take advantage of the block grant is declare its spending strategy in an annual plan.

The authority applied to the program in 2009 and received the designation in 2010, becoming one of 35 Moving to Work agencies in the entire United States.

HUD only grants high performing housing authorities Moving to Work status. When making its decision, HUD considers an agency’s administrative effectiveness, financial health, occupancy rates, voucher turnover, resident input and unit conditions. HUD then rates an authority based on a 100-point system, with a minimum of 90 points needed to meet the program’s requirements.

Smith said the Housing Authority scored 91 during the evaluation.

In general, housing authorities receive federal funds for particular areas. For example, money is set aside for housing choice vouchers, administrative expenses, general operating expenses, capital programs and replacement housing expenses. Without being a Moving to Work agency, housing authorities have to follow strict rules on how money in each category is spent.

“You couldn’t use housing choice voucher funds to do development, for example,” said Smith. “Now we can because it all comes as one big grant.”