Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has said his proposal to raise rents for America’s poorest citizens will force low-income tenants to find jobs and become more self-sufficient. But in D.C. — where his proposal will likely cause a larger increase in rent than any of the 50 states would see — that rationale does not stand up to scrutiny, housing experts and advocates say.
More than half — 53 percent — of D.C. residents receiving federal rental assistance are elderly or disabled, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Even if their rents go up, most of these individuals are physically unable to work, said Claire Zippel of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
As for non-elderly, non-disabled Americans who receive rental assistance, many are already working — a statistic that holds true both for the District and the nation.
In D.C. in 2016, 72 percent of people in this category were currently working, had worked in the last year, or were enrolled in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which mandates that nearly all of its recipients work. Nationally, that figure is 74 percent, according to CBPP.
Carson’s plan, announced in April, would cause the rent paid by extremely low-income Americans to at least triple. If approved by Congress, the proposal would increase the monthly minimum rent charged by public-housing facilities from $50 to $150. It would also raise the rent paid by tenants in subsidized housing from 30 percent of adjusted income to 35 percent of gross income.
Under the plan, individuals who are over the age of 65 or are disabled will be exempt from the rent increases for six years, though they could start seeing incremental raises within three years, according to Will Fischer of CBPP. Nationwide, seniors and disabled people make up more than half of the 4.7 million families who receive federal subsidies, HUD officials have said.
The proposal is currently in draft form; to advance the plan, HUD must next ask a member of Congress to formally introduce it as a bill.
In a recent interview with Fox News, Carson said the plan marks the administration’s effort to “give poor people a way out of poverty.”
Some conservatives have hailed Carson’s strategy as more effective than the current system.
“Efficient welfare gives aid, but it also tries to stimulate positive behavior,” Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation previously told The Washington Post. “We’re not rewarding non-work, which is what traditional welfare does.”
Zippel, though, said she thinks Carson’s strategy is unlikely to push the majority of those affected out of poverty.
“If you’re elderly or disabled you may have many barriers to finding work and might not in many cases be physically or mentally capable of working,” Zippel said. “Elderly and disabled people are probably not the kind of folks who we want to be pushing into the labor market because they can’t work.”
Chearie Phelps-El, a 55-year-old disabled public housing resident who receives $530 per month in Supplemental Security Income, said she would find it very difficult to hold a job.
“The policy that he’s trying to pass is going to affect me traumatically,” Phelps-El said as she stood outside the Rayburn building last month to deliver a petition calling on Congress to spurn Carson’s plan. “How am I going to eat? Every time you lose an inch you get pulled down a whole mile.”
As for those who aren’t elderly or disabled, “Folks are motivated to work and folks that can get jobs are getting them,” said Ellen Lurie Hoffman, federal policy director at the National Housing Trust, which oversees nine properties in the District housing tenants who receive federal rental assistance.
She added that an informal survey of the properties in early July revealed that 79 percent of its roughly 1,700 tenants currently work.
Carson’s plan comes on the heels of a broader Trump administration crackdown on safety net programs and repeated assertions from federal officials that extremely low-income Americans need to get back to work. State legislators around the country are also turning to increasingly aggressive tactics to force the poor into the workforce.
At a rally in Missouri in November 2017, President Donald Trump vowed to prioritize reforming the social welfare system and described what he sees as a typical recipient of federal assistance.
“I know people, they work three jobs and they live next to somebody who doesn’t work at all,” Trump said then. “And the person who’s not working at all and has no intention of working at all is making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his and her ass off.”
Housing experts say this portrayal of America’s poorest — from the president and from other officials — is wildly off-base, especially in the District. Fischer pointed to a disconnect between government rhetoric and the actual makeup of America’s poorest citizens. Zippel said the “image that’s been presented” of households aided by federal rental programs is a “misconception.”
“It seems like a punitive solution in search of a problem that doesn’t quite exist,” Zippel said, referring to Carson’s plan.