Forever residents: Maryville public housing has become permanent for many
By Melanie Tucker | (email@example.com)
Sitting on a waiting list for three years to get into public housing seems like a hopeless situation for those truly needing help, said U.S. Housing and Urban Development Field Office Director Ed Ellis.
While Ellis said he doesn’t know the typical wait for public housing in the East Tennessee area, people will end up waiting one year or more. At Maryville Housing Authority (MHA), it’s been a three-year wait for many and there seems to be no reason to think that will change in the near future.
“I will say most all of the housing authorities do have an extensive waiting list, from a year up to three years,” Ellis said. “Three years is at the extreme level.”
He said most housing authorities shut down the list once it gets to such an extreme level. “What good does it do to put your name on a waiting list if you are going to wait three years?” he said. “If you need a house, you need a house now.”
One of the reasons it has been so difficult to get into Maryville public housing is because once people do get in, they tend to stay, regardless of how their financial status has improved over the years.
Joyce Baker is executive director of MHA and oversees the public housing units at Broadway Towers, Parkside, East Park and McGhee Terrace. Parkside was Maryville’s first public housing development, built in 1969, followed by East Park in 1974, McGhee Terrace in 1976 and Broadway Towers in 1986. Maryville Towers falls under Section 8 housing.
Tenants are only required to be income eligible at move-in, Baker said, meaning you can become a forever resident of public housing as long as you pay your rent and don’t break the lease. Each family that moves in must be recertified each year. Their incomes are used to calculate what rent they must pay. But there is also a ceiling rent. Once you hit that level of rent, you won’t be required to pay more unless that ceiling is increased.
Those rent ceilings, Ellis said, need to be adjusted every two years to reflect fair market rent. At MHA, tenants were paying only $392 for a three-bedroom unit in 2007 and 2008. That rent ceiling was adjusted to $486 in 2009 and it continued at that rate through 2012.
Compare that to the fair market rental values provided by HUD for Blount County: A three-bedroom unit is currently $990.
Baker said ceiling rents will be re-evaluated in 2013 and implemented in 2014. To do this, MHA looks at a fair market rent schedule furnished by HUD and also statewide data from THDA, Baker said.
Too good a deal?
MHA residents know they have a good deal, Baker said. Their utilities are included in the rent. It’s hard to get in, so people don’t leave once here. “They don’t leave us,” she said. “We are too good to them.”
But Ellis believes rent should reflect the real market and not cause people to want to stay forever. “People don’t have to move, but what does happen is they will be paying the maximum rent so that is incentive to move,” Ellis said. “Families will say ‘I can go down the street and pay for an apartment’ so they end up self moving.”
Ellis admitted there have been public housing authorities who have failed to keep up with fair market rent, but that is one of the things they are supposed to do on a regular basis.
HUD also has a Family Self-Sufficiency Program, the goal of which is to help families in public housing become more independent, thereby leaving pubic housing so room is made for others. That includes help with job training, budgeting and going back to school, Ellis said.
Baker said MHA prefers to partner with Habitat for Humanity and Foothills Community Development Corp., two agencies here that also work toward providing low-cost housing. Whenever a family seeks to leave public housing for the private sector, they are referred to these two, Baker said.
“They have all the services that are needed, like budgeting, so why should we have to do it?” she said.
Kelly Spears, area director of nonprofit Foothills Community Development Corp., said his organization was created to fill the gap between the low-income families Habitat for Humanity serves and the people who make too much money to be eligible for a Habitat home.
“We would hope people at MHA who get their feet on the ground would then move up to Habitat or us,” Spears said.
FCDC has built 65 homes since its inception back in 2005. Average mortgages are $620, Spears said. That’s for a three-bedroom, 1,400-square-foot home with a garage. FCDC has current lots available and is looking to buy 29 more lots in the county.
Every family that applies to Habitat also gets looked at by FCDC to see which is the better match. “We could probably do a better job of interfacing with MHA,” Spears said.
Where to expand
There has been no public housing built solely with HUD money since 1994 in this country. However, HUD has partnered with privately-owned organizations or nonprofits to provide affordable housing.
The first public housing was constructed in Blount County in 1969. U.S. Census data shows the population for Blount County in 1970 was 63,744; in 1980, 77,770; and in 1990, 85,969. Today, Blount County’s population tops 123,000 SEmD nearly twice the number of residents as in 1969 SEmD and 12 percent of our population lives below the poverty level.
There is no way to expand public housing at the current sites, Baker said, explaining that property will have to be acquired elsewhere. But because HUD money has all but dried up, Baker said, MHA doesn’t have any immediate plans to expand.
Ellis said while it’s true federal money has become scarce for new construction projects, nothing prevents public housing agencies from going out on their own to find funding elsewhere.
“There are a lot of different programs out there,” Ellis said. “Public housing authorities can partner up with another nonprofit or private developer and apply for resources to build affordable housing.”
He said Knox County’s housing authority, Knoxville Community Development Corp., has been very proactive when it comes to providing housing for the community’s elderly and disabled.
“There are still a lot of ways to build affordable housing beyond the old-fashioned public housing concept.”
Public housing’s role
MHA is required to present HUD with a five-year plan, and it has included providing more affordable housing as one of its main focuses for the past few years. Public housing boards like MHA should be asking questions about the plans and inquire about the progress being made, Ellis said. HUD also reviews those five-year plans, he said.
It looks like the role of public housing in Maryville has changed over the years. Baker said HUD used to have income limits for resident many years ago and residents who exceeded those were asked to leave. Now, you can stay as long as you want, no matter if you make $60,000 or even $100,000.
Baker said the economy has kept people in public housing longer and she believes it has indeed turned more into permanent residency for lots of people.
“Pubic housing was introduced in 1937,” she said. “It was transitional housing. During the Depression people had lost their jobs and it was a place to live until they got back on their feet. With the work ethic they had, they got back on their feet and got out. It was never meant to be permanent housing. Through the years it has turned into that.”
Ellis said the goal of public housing is quite different, and even manageable.
The key to keeping public housing as transitional housing instead of permanent housing, Ellis said, is to keep raising the rent ceiling to reflect the fair market value. Families will eventually decide to move into the private sector, he said.
“The last thing we want to do for families is to have families live there forever and ever,” Ellis said. “It is not doing them any good in most cases nor does it serve the families who have been on the waiting list for three years.”