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10/30/01: The following is an old, but still relevant article that Jaimie Ross of 1000 Friends of Florida wrote that members might find interesting. Enjoy.

Grappling with Housing Needs of the Lowest Income: Current Issues in Public and Assisted Housing

by Jaimie Ross, Affordable Housing Director, 1000 Friends of Florida

Thanks to the Local Government Comprehensive Planning and Land Development Regulation Act, and the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Act, Florida leads the nation in affordable housing planning, financing, programs, and technical assistance. Other states around the nation look to Florida for guidance in all these areas of affordable housing; we have a great many accomplishments for which to be proud. Meeting the needs of the "poorest of the poor," however, is not one of them.

Florida's programs, by and large, are designed to address the needs of first time home buyers, and renters who generally fall between 50-80% of area median income. Our programs are designed to produce affordable housing by the private sector using subsidy from government, usually in the form of a loan. It is not economically feasible for the private sector to produce housing with subsidy loans for persons with annual incomes between zero and 30% of area median income, "the poorest of the poor." For this population, we rely upon public housing authorities.

The enabling legislation for Florida's public housing authorities (PHAs) is found in Chapter 421, Florida Statutes. It sets forth the mechanisms for local governments to establish public housing authorities to develop, own, and manage housing for extremely low income persons in accordance with HUD rules and regulations. Generally, PHAs currently serve two functions; they own and operate public housing and they administer the Section 8 program for tenants living in privately owned and operated housing. Florida's 119 public housing authorities operate approximately 46,000 units of public housing and administer approximately 65,000 section 8 certificates/vouchers.

Public housing authorities receive funding directly from the federal government. Neither the state nor the local governments in which they operate have played a significant role in supporting the operations of the PHAs. There is, however, a movement afoot to change that scenario. Due to a combination of the devolution of federal programs, cutbacks in HUD funding, and removal of federal preferences, which make it possible for PHAs to serve higher income tenant groups, PHAs are expressing an interest in breaking into the affordable housing market: the market that currently uses local programs such as SHIP; and state programs, such as SAIL, HOME, and LIHTC.

Public housing's focus on exclusively housing the extremely low-income is changing. Two bills that each have passed one house of Congress (HR 2, sponsored by Representative Rick Lazio R-NY) and (SB 462, sponsored by Senator Connie Mack R-FL) would drastically change the way PHAs function. These bills make changes to income targeting, lease terms, tenant relocation requirements, rent policies, and voucher/certificate programs.

Both bills would change the income targeting requirements of public and assisted housing, resulting in fewer units available for families earning less than 30 percent of the area's median. The bill approved by the House of Representatives (HR 2) would allow PHAs to lease up to 65 percent of all public housing units that come available to families that earn between 30-80 percent of area median income (AMI). Thirty five percent of newly available units would have to be leased to families that are at or below 30 percent of median. The Senate bill (S. 462) is slightly more targeted to poorer families, requiring 40 percent of units to be leased to families earning less than 30 percent of AMI, with 70 percent of units being required to be occupied by families at or below 60 percent of AMI.

Income targeting in the other major rental programs administered by PHAs also would change. The Section 8 Rental Assistance program provides rental assistance to families leasing privately owned units. The House bill would require 40 percent of all vouchers to be issued to families below 30 percent of median, allowing 60 percent of all Section 8 vouchers to be issued to families between 30-80 percent of median. The Senate would allow 45 percent of vouchers to be issued to families between 30-80 percent of median. (For more information on these bills see the National Low Income Housing Coalition Web site at www.nlihc.org.)

All of this raises some very difficult, perplexing, and controversial issues such as:
If public housing authorities serve higher income groups, who will serve the neediest?
Does it make sense for public housing authorities to compete with the private sector to develop units for higher income groups?
Should public housing authorities be given a preference for local or state subsidies?

The Affordable Housing Study Commission is currently undertaking a study of how Florida should meet the needs of the zero to 30% income population. These are critical policy issues. We are listening carefully to the discussion in favor of a mixed income population in public housing, survival options for public housing, as well as concerns about public housing authorities as owners, and managers of affordable housing.

We are also evaluating the myriad of issues that accompany the Section 8 Renewal and Restructuring Program, including maintaining tenant affordability and avoiding displacement. In addition to public housing, Florida has FHA subsidized multi-family housing, referred to as assisted housing. Most of these units are old, and need of repair, and subject to expiring Section 8 contracts. In 1997, Mark to Market, also known as Portfolio Reengineering, was adopted by Congress. This program, in its initial phase of rulemaking, will provide owners with an opportunity to restructure debt while reducing rents to market rate, and rehabilitating the building.

With enough creative thinking we may be able to boast Florida as the national leader for serving the needs of every segment of the low income population.