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Federal housing assistance proposal concerns community

May 10, 2018

Keith Johnathan is immersed in the topics of housing and poverty on a regular basis.

As executive director of the Eau Claire Housing Authority, Johnathan spends every work day allocating federally-subsidized housing to individuals and families in the city who cannot afford that expense on their own.

The Eau Claire Housing Authority assists about 360 individuals with federally subsidized housing. However, 47 percent of households in the county live in poverty and do not receive federal assistance. © 2018 Samantha West

At a JONAH meeting about issues of poverty, homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in Eau Claire, Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Elizabeth Geise presented the department’s new data.

Johnathan remembered Geise sharing that one in seven residents of Eau Claire County live below the federal poverty line. According to a recent ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report, 47 percent of households in the county are in poverty.

Johnathan couldn’t help but think of the 360-some individuals and families he serves at the Housing Authority.

“That’s a drop in the bucket,” Johnathan said. “There was nothing more sobering than listening to her numbers and the comparison of what we were able to provide. And then, there’s the thought that the federal government is trying to abolish the program or cut funding — there’s always that threat.”

Then, a new threat came when Secretary of Urban and Housing Development Ben Carson released a new plan called the “Making Affordable Housing Work Act” on April 25.

The bill

The proposed legislation would raise the amount of gross income — or the amount of their income that Americans on housing assistance would have to pay for rent — from 30 to 35 percent.

In addition, Carson’s bill would require that people on federal housing assistance work at least 15 hours a week at federal minimum wage level, and subsequently, housing authorities would be allowed to create and impose their own additional work requirements as well.

“It’s our attempt to give poor people a way out of poverty,” Carson said in an interview with FOX News, further explaining the proposal is their attempt to “incentivize” those in poverty. The goal, the bill states, is to guide families toward “self-sufficiency.”

When Johnathan read through the bill — several times — he said he couldn’t understand where the proposal was coming from. He believes the system works as is.

“I look at it (the bill) and I think to myself it’s almost like the federal government is looking at this as a handout,” Johnathan said. “And they’re going to put an end to the handout.”

Johnathan said he expected more reform to poverty-related programs like his since President Donald Trump’s inauguration last year. Until now, things have mostly been business as usual for the Housing Authority.

“But with this,” Johnathan said, “we could see a major upheaval.”

According to a Washington Post story, Department of Housing and Urban Development officials say about half of the 4.7 million families receiving housing benefits would be affected by the bill.

Carson has said government spending on housing increases every year, while many still sit on waiting lists for years. Only one in four eligible families currently receive housing benefits, and the proposed bill is to make the system more sustainable for the future, Carson said.

Those who will not be impacted include the elderly and those with a disability — which Johnathan said is comforting.

“Those are the most vulnerable people in our community and to put those types of regulations on them and their housing,” Johnathan said, “it would be impossible for them.”

Those in Eau Claire who receive assistance from the Housing Authority — and those who sit on waiting lists — will likely feel the impact of this bill if it gets passed through the House and Senate, Johnathan said.

The bill’s impact on Eau Claire

Following the Trump administration’s recent move that allows states to impose work requirements on those enrolled in Medicaid and other similar local and state government actions, Geise said this proposed bill is another step in discriminating against those in poverty.

“We all benefit from services and programs from the government, no matter what our income is, whether that’s our roads, the infrastructure we build our businesses on, the tax benefits we get as business owners — all of that is tax dollars,” Geise said. “I am concerned about what seems to be a push to put up restrictions for people with lower income levels to access those tax dollars that support them.”

Geise said Eau Claire is “the perfect storm” in the issue of housing.

According to the health department, 38 percent of residents rent their homes. One in two of these residents is cost-burdened, or paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent alone. One in five is “extremely cost-burdened,” meaning that they pay more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

Of the 62 percent of residents who own their home in the county, health department data shows that one in five is considered cost-burdened, and one in 14 is extremely cost-burdened.

“Already, people are struggling to make rent,” Geise said. “So to make that worse is very concerning. … The majority of people are not getting help with housing. That piece alone should be what we’re concerned about — the waiting lists and the people who are not getting services that should be.”

Changing it around

Al Smith is one of those in Eau Claire who cannot receive assistance from the Housing Authority.

Smith, 54, has lived a nomadic lifestyle for almost his entire life. After the end of his 10 years of military service, he admits his homelessness had largely been by choice.

“I chose to be this way,” Smith said. “But I can’t get out of it. I don’t want it no more.”

All Smith wants is to be able to provide a stable lifestyle in order to get custody of his 7-year-old daughter. However, housing programs are largely for parents with children. But Smith can’t get his daughter back until he has housing, a job and transportation to get to the job.

Currently, Smith calls Sojourner House or the streets home for nights. During the day he considers Positive Avenues his “home base.” He said he used to make $33 an hour as a licensed electrician.

“I don’t have any place to start from,” Smith said.

Though Smith said he’s “screwed up” in the past, referencing his record of DUIs as well as other criminal offenses, he feels there isn’t enough assistance available in Eau Claire for those who need help improving.

“I chose to change it around,” Smith said. “It’s gonna be hard … But it’s time to move forward.”

Looking forward, Johnathan said he’s left with many questions about the bill. But, the proposal still must be passed through Congress before coming into effect, and likely many of those questions will be answered.

“It’s got to be tough enough trying to raise a family on limited income to begin with, but then to be told you’re going to have to pay more because somebody arbitrarily says we need to increase this,” Johnathan said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

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