Obscure Delaware Program Is A Public Housing Miracle

Housing Bubble

Kathryn Watson

More than 850 families have transitioned out of public housing in Delaware since the state began limiting the length of time residents are eligible to receive housing subsidies, and hundreds more have become homeowners.

“Before we started Moving to Work, we had people who were on their third or fourth generation of the same family who were at the same site,” Rebecca Kauffman, social service senior administrator at the Delaware Housing Authority’s Moving to Work program, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

The Delaware group is one of only 39 housing authorities out of more than 3,000 in the country that the federal government allows to have its own work requirements and residency time limits. The Moving to Work program was approved during the Clinton administration in 1996.

“It was tough at the beginning because there was no time limit,” Kauffman said. “People could come into public housing and stay forever.”

But the program has compiled an impressive record. More than 850 families have completed the program to enter assistance-free living, and 30 percent of program participants became homeowners when they left. Kauffman said she could probably count on one hand the number of people who ended the program facing possible homelessness.

“We think that at this point in time it is a very successful program and we are very proud of our program,” Kauffman said.

The contrast with the rest of the federal public housing program is vivid. The average resident currently receiving a Section 8 voucher in the U.S. has been doing so for nine years, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

In some places, the average stay is much longer. New York City residents on vouchers have received help for an average of 18 years. Nationwide, federal housing subsidies cost taxpayers more than $50 billion annually.

A lack of time limits in America’s subsidized housing discourages poorer Americans from achieving financial independence and keeps the neediest on wait lists for years, argues Howard Husock, vice president for research and publications at the Manhattan Institute and director of its social entrepreneurship initiative.

“I’ve been making this argument for 20 years, ever since welfare reform,” Husock told TheDCNF. “Our housing policy should be aligned with our social policy. If you know you’ve got five years, then your incentives change completely. It changes your whole time horizon, your whole life horizon. This is welfare unreformed.”

Having an expiration date on government-assisted housing motivates people to improve their financial situation, Kauffman said. The Delaware Moving to Work program requires all adults to work, and to work an increasing number of hours per week during their five year tenure — at least 30 hours a week towards the end of the program. Two of three participating adults work more than 30 hours a week.

Participants also have to meet quarterly with a case manager to plan their path to financial independence, and build savings goals. All school-age children in each home have to meet attendance requirements, and once a child turns 18, he has to either continue his education or meet the work requirements to remain in the subsidized housing.

Households with three strikes for failing to meet any of those standards lose their housing subsidy, as about 2 percent of program participants have, Kauffman said. People who, at the end of five years, prove they are doing all they can and need an extension, can apply for a one-time, two-year extension through a hardship panel.

“They’ll [residents] say that without moving to work and without the case manager and the opportunity to establish a savings, they wouldn’t be able to do it,” Kauffman said.

“Our mission has always been a part of the solution,” said Kauffman, who said her program helps residents look at subsidized housing as a temporary, rather than a permanent, option.

There is little research on the success of Moving to Work projects, but there is a “nascent movement among housing authorities” towards imposing time restrictions, Husock said.

“The time has come to face the fact that assistance to low-income families has to be limited in length and fair in distribution,” a 2005 Public Housing Authorities Directors report concluded. “That can only happen by limits on the time families can receive housing assistance.”

But little has changed since the original 1996 public housing reform. Rep. John Carney, a Delaware Democrat, introduced a bill last summer to expand the number of Moving to Work housing authorities from 39 to 60, but the measure never reached the floor of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Kauffman’s office receives a couple calls a month from other housing authorities hoping to try a similar program, but they worry about pushback from local poverty and housing groups and don’t have the authority to experiment with time limits.

“I do think it should be the wave of the future, just like welfare reform has been,” Kauffman said. “And that’s really how the housing authorities are going to have to do it.”

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