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In Response: Public-housing story was uncritically rah-rah

From the column: "Many feel strongly about instituting work requirements for social safety net programs. But the benefits are usually outweighed by the costs."

Kevin Swanberg.jpg
Kevin Swanberg

I was disappointed reading the News Tribune’s uncritical story on Feb. 20 regarding a new program in Hibbing that institutes work requirements for families living in public housing. (“ Hibbing to institute work-related requirement for public-housing tenants in fall ”).

The program, “Moving to Work, or MTW, would require all those in public housing who are not disabled to work, go to school, or participate in an activity to better themselves for 15 hours per week. The article presented this as a leg up for people receiving housing assistance. The story read as more of a press release for the program than a news story presenting objective views.

Many housing advocates are concerned about this program. MTW relaxes rules for public-housing agencies, allowing them to decide independently how to spend their funds rather than following government-determined spending formulas. The result of this change has been devastating for housing-insecure families. An October 2017 report by Abt Associates, an independent research firm, found that MTW agencies shifted more than $600 million away from housing programs, resulting in nearly 60,000 families at these agencies being denied housing vouchers. In other words, Moving to Work has removed opportunities, not opened them, as the News Tribune piece claimed.

MTW’s work requirement also has been insufficient. In the News Tribune story, these requirements were framed as a path toward independence. But the Abt Associates report found no difference in increase in income between families in MTW programs and families in traditional public housing. Instead, the report found that families received assistance for 11 fewer months in MTW programs than in traditional public housing — often because work requirements forced them out before they were back on their feet.

Finally, MTW agencies spend more money than non-MTW public-housing agencies. MTW agencies spend 43% more on administrative costs than traditional public housing agencies, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

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Many feel strongly about instituting work requirements for social safety net programs. But the benefits are usually outweighed by the costs. The facts show that Moving to Work spends more money to put fewer people in housing with no appreciable benefit. Further, it is attempting to solve a problem that really doesn’t exist.

According to HUD, more than half of public-housing residents are elderly or disabled; only about 10% are able to work but currently aren’t. This means this program is increasing costs and reducing access simply to address a small minority of those in housing.

People in public housing are not there because they aren’t working. Instead, it is usually because low-wage jobs cannot cover the rent without assistance. If we truly want to get folks out of public housing, as the MTW program claims, the real path is a living wage, more housing, and more support for families who need it.

At a time when millions are out of work and facing eviction or foreclosure due to a devastating pandemic, we need to look with a critical eye toward programs like MTW rather than applaud them without question.

Kevin Swanberg of Duluth is an advocate for affordable housing and is studying housing and tenants’ rights while attending law school at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul.

Related Topics: HOUSING
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