The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No excuse for high-income families in subsidized low-income housing

A row of boarded up apartments at Lincoln heights, a public housing project in Washington. (Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

Like so many, I was shocked to learn that some housing units set aside for low-income families are being occupied by people with six-figure salaries.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Inspector General took a look at tenants who initially qualified for public housing but now earn more than regulations would allow first-time move-ins.

The resulting report found that more than 25,000 tenants have annual incomes that exceed HUD’s 2014 eligibility limits. Nearly half surpass the local threshold by $10,000 to $70,000. People who were initially approved have been permitted to stay in subsidized housing even if their income has increased beyond the limit. And there has been no cap on the length of time a tenant can stay.

HUD’s defense of the situation was that allowing “overincome” people to stay helps its efforts to deconcentrate poverty in public housing developments.

A family in public housing makes $498,000 a year

I guess we could call this policy of wanting to keep wealthier residents in public housing the “Trickle Next Door Theory.”

The original premise of trickle-down economics was that if you give more tax breaks to the wealthy, there’ll be an economic lift for all. The thinking was, by lowering people’s tax rates you induce them to work harder and spend more money. The increased spending then spurs the economy and everyone prospers.

A study out this year by the International Monetary Fund found that trickle-down policies don’t necessarily work.

“If the income share of the top 20 percent (the rich) increases, then [gross domestic product] growth actually declines over the medium term, suggesting that the benefits do not trickle down,” the report says.

By the way, the HUD inspector general’s report said the department didn’t provide “any quantitative evidence to demonstrate the positive social benefits from having overincome families residing in public housing.”

Here are a few cases highlighted in the review:

In Los Angeles, one household’s five-person income was about $205,000. The income threshold for 2014 was $70,450. As of last summer, the family’s rent was $1,091.

A New York family of four living in subsidized housing was making nearly $500,000 as of 2013. The income threshold that year was $67,100.

It gets worse.

The head of the household owned real estate that generated $790,000 in rental income between 2009 and 2013, the report says. As of July 2014, the family was paying $1,574 a month for the three-bedroom unit.

By the way, this isn’t just happening in major metropolitan areas with crazy-high rents. Five years after getting subsidized housing in Oxford, Neb. (population: 766), a tenant living in a one-bedroom unit and paying $300 in rent was making $65,000; the income threshold for such housing was $33,500. The tenant had total assets of $1.6 million, which included stocks valued at about $625,000, $470,000 in real estate, an IRA worth nearly $125,000 and a checking account balance of about $335,000.

Criticism about those and other families taking advantage of the system should bring about change. Last week, a spokesman for HUD said steps are being taken “to encourage housing authorities to establish policies that will reduce the number of overincome families in public housing.”

HUD said it’s trying to boot families who earn too much from public housing

We should be disgusted by folks who have six-figure salaries and are taking affordable housing space away from families who truly need the help. But amid our criticisms, let’s not lose sight of the bigger issue.

We don’t have enough affordable housing options in this country. And the funds allocated to help families continue to be cut by Congress.

This public housing report reminded me of a summer scene from 2010 in Atlanta. You've got to watch the news reports. To see one, go to

A crowd converged in sweltering temperatures for a chance to get into public housing. Agency workers sat or stood on the hoods of cars amid throngs of people grabbing for applications. Some of them passed out and had to be treated for being overheated.

Ron Mott, a correspondent for MSNBC at the time, reported that 13,000 applications were handed out that day.

“There are exactly zero public housing units — zero public subsidized housing units — available in East Point, Georgia,” Mott reported. “A lot of these folks will never get off that wait list.”

There are 302,079 families on the list for public housing in New York. In Boston, 117,663 families are waiting for units; in Los Angeles, 43,488. We should be equally shocked at this situation.

How can families ever get ahead financially if their budgets are overburdened just trying to afford decent housing?

When we truly help the less fortunate, there isn’t a trickle-down effect but a spout of benefits to us all.

Write to Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or Comments may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless otherwise requested. To read more, go to

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