St. Charles Parish public housing director says no prob here

National controversy focuses on residents making 6-figure incomes

When St. Charles Parish recently appeared in news reports saying five people earning a six-figure income were living in local public housing, the head of the parish Housing Authority asked for their names.

“I found no one in the low-income housing program in the parish having that type of income,” said Authority Executive Director Benjamin Bell. So far, Bell hasn’t gotten those names and his records do not show them.

Attention recently focused on so-called “over-income households” when HUD’s Office of Inspector General issued a July report aimed at determining the extent to which HUD-subsidized public housing units were occupied by occupants with six-figure incomes. The report says 332 households or .031 percent of all public housing tenants nationally have incomes of $150,000 or more.

While Bell can’t legally name residents with their income, he provided documentation with income breakdown of the parish’s public housing residents.

Of the total 129 units available, 124 of them are occupied. They are all public housing subsidized through HUD where residents can elect flat rent or rent based on 30 percent of income.

Of these residents, four households earn more than $45,000 a year with the highest yearly household income at $58,000. Bell said the majority of these units, 79 of them, have a household income of  $15,000 or less per year.

Residents’ income can grow while in public housing and is an intended purpose of the assistance, but Bell said they must report those changes yearly or risk losing their unit. They must also yearly report the number of occupants in the unit or risk losing it.

If anyone misrepresents their income, he said they could be removed from public housing.

As with most public housing in the nation, the parish has 184 applicants waiting for local public housing. Of this total, 79 are waiting for a single-bedroom unit; 56 for two bedrooms; 30 for a three-bedroom unit, and two for a four-bedroom unit.

Bell said the HUD report was aimed at pointing out lapses in procedures, not to target residents earning the amounts reported unless they find obvious significant discrepancies.Public housing is intended to be transitional housing, which means when residents’ financial situation improves they should seek other housing, but Bell said that can be challenging in St. Charles Parish where Section 8 housing is in short supply.

Even with federal first-time buyer programs, he said, residents may have to overcome credit or mortgage issues.Managed by HUD, the Section 8 program authorizes  payment of rental housing assistance to private landlords on behalf of an estimated 4.8 million low-income households as of 2008 in the U.S. The largest part of this program is the Housing Choice Voucher program that pays a large portion of the rents and utilities of about 2.1 million households.

According to Bell, “It’s never a cookie cutter situation. The people who make this kind of money are very low in the scale of things.”

In public housing, household income can look high in a unit with multiple residents, but in most cases that figure represents multiple incomes.

Bell said they don’t “have a provision that people absolutely have to move if they elect for flat rent. The average person makes out well on flat rent unless they are extremely poor.”

In higher cost-of-living states like California, it isn’t uncommon to have people in public housing earning six figures.

Bell said he’s worked in housing authorities in areas where low- to marginally-priced housing can be around $500,000 with higher-end houses at $5 million.

“Los Angeles is the biggest Section 8 market in the nation, but even then many of those people have marginal jobs in the service industry – not top jobs,” he said. “It’s easy to understand where they have a decent job, but do you want everybody in public housing making nothing?”

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