Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Carson unveils plan to rehab HUD

Compassion | Proposal aims to encourage less dependency on the government
by Rob Holmes
Posted 5/02/18, 06:04 pm

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson unveiled a plan last week to address some of the most critical problems with the federal government’s rent assistance program. Carson said the reforms would simplify the process for receiving aid, encourage recipients to become less dependent on welfare, and save taxpayers money. But the plan also has raised fears that rents could triple for the poorest beneficiaries of the program.

In a statement announcing the plan, Carson described as broken the system now used for calculating HUD-assisted households’ rent contributions. Tenants must “surrender vast amounts of personal information each year” with some families getting charged “wildly different rents” when compared to others with similar income, he said. He added that landlords and public housing authorities spend hours determining payments with a set of “byzantine rent rules for tenant income calculations.”

The Making Affordable Housing Work Act would simplify the rent payment structure and require families to verify their income every three years instead of annually. Carson said the change would “encourage increased earned income without adversely impacting a household’s rent for up to three years.”

The program now requires families to pay 30 percent of their household income down to a $50 minimum. The proposed changes would set rent at the higher of 35 percent of the family’s income or 35 percent of what a minimum wage worker would earn on a 15-hours-a-week job, which is currently about $150. The plan would exempt from many of the changes the elderly and disabled, along with anyone who could face eviction once the new rules go into effect.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said the change would hammer single mothers who pay the $50 minimum per month by tripling their rent. It also warned nearly 1 million children could face homelessness. When The Washington Post asked HUD about that analysis, a spokesman pointed out the exemptions in the law. The CBPP claims that such exemptions are rarely used because many families don’t know they exist and can’t take advantage of them if they don’t apply for them.

Besides the reform of rental payments, Carson said the plan would “shift from the Public Housing funding platform to Housing Vouchers and Project-Based Rental Assistance.” Supporters of vouchers and the PBRA say they encourage more private investment in housing, which is badly needed in aging public housing across the nation.

The Housing Authority of the City of Charleston, S.C., oversees about 1,400 public housing units. Under the voucher system there, a tenant pays a portion of the rent directly to the landlord, and the Housing Choice Voucher Office pays the landlord the difference.

In an additional bid to save federal money and trim ineffective programs, the HUD reforms would cut the Community Development Block Grant program, which is rife with documented wastefulness, saving taxpayers $3 billion annually. The CDBG has cost $150 billion since its inception in 1974. Carson’s plan focuses on community EnVision centers, like the one that opened in Detroit in December, which promote self-sufficiency through economic empowerment, educational advancement, health and wellness, and character and leadership.

Facebook/UI Health Facebook/UI Health The University of Illinois Hospital emergency department

Why are hospitals housing the homeless?

Several U.S. hospitals have implemented a surprising solution to expensive care for emergency room “super users” who are homeless: paying for an apartment.

Healthcare administrators at the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago recognized that half of the chronically ill people showing up in the ER were also chronically homeless—people like Glenn Baker, 45, who told NPR he frequently used his asthma and blood pressure problems to get into the ER since he had nowhere to call home. 

Baker was among the first 26 people sponsored by a 2015 pilot program at the hospital that has decreased the healthcare costs of participants by average of 18 percent a month. Now the program has ramped up to double the number of patients receiving housing.

“If every hospital in the area agreed to house 10 chronically homeless patients, which would be a relatively modest investment, we could collectively make a huge impact on reducing homelessness, and it would be near cost-neutral to every hospital,” Stephen Brown, director of preventive emergency medicine at the hospital, told WBEZ-TV in Chicago. 

Now three other Chicago hospitals—Swedish Covenant, Rush, and Stroger—are considering or have launched similar healthcare-cum-housing programs. 

University of Illinois Hospital formed a partnership with the Center of Housing and Health to identify and support ER “frequent fliers.” The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development pays for part of the rented apartment, while the hospital kicks in $1,000 a month toward the total cost of housing and other support. That is far less than a $3,000-per-day ER bill that wouldn’t get paid.

The success of the innovative program stems from more than housing: It offers stability through caring relationships. A case manager shepherds the patient through myriad daily needs such as handling money, getting to appointments, and accessing other services. —R.H.

Associated Press/Photo by Mark Humphrey Associated Press/Photo by Mark Humphrey The Rev. William J. Barber II (second from left) and the Rev. Liz Theoharis (far left), co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign, speak at the National Civil Rights Museum on April 3.

Poor People’s Campaign 2018

Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, organizers are styling a new Poor People’s Campaign after plans the civil rights leader was not able to complete before he died. Leaders called for 40 days of nationwide demonstrations concerning poverty and racism from May 13 to June 21, with a final rally slated for June 23 in Washington, D.C.

The demands of the 2018 campaign signal a revival of King’s planned Poor People’s March on Washington in 1968. Those plans centered on a multiracial, “Occupy”-style shantytown called Resurrection City on the National Mall. Its 3,000 resident demonstrators proposed to stay until their demands were met, such as MLK’s Economic Bill of Rights, a guaranteed income, and a vast increase in affordable housing. But their experiment deteriorated after only six weeks.

To put some of the economic concerns of the movement in context, according to U.S. Census Bureau data for 2015-2016, median income increased for nearly all configurations of U.S. households, whether white, African-American, or Hispanic. African-American households saw the greatest gain of 5.7 percent. Asian households saw no statistical change. In related good news, the total number of men and women working full time, year-round, grew by 2.2 million. 

Campaign supporters decry the 12.7 percent official poverty rate for 2016, but it represents a downward trend since 2014, and the Census Bureau said the 2016 rate is nearly the same as 2007, just before the Great Recession. —R.H.

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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