The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Public housing officials blast Obama administration’s move to oust wealthier tenants from subsidized homes

Woodland Terrace, a public housing complex in Southeast Washington (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

A leading group that represents housing authorities across the country is balking at the federal government’s new campaign to boot high-earning tenants from subsidized apartments. And it’s urging the Obama administration and Congress to let them stay.

In a letter this week, the director of the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association told Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro that a report highlighting “over income” tenants that triggered the change in policy was deeply flawed.

“I am writing to urge the Department to maintain current practice regarding higher income residents,” Timothy Kaiser, the group’s executive director, wrote.

[A family in public housing makes $498,000 a year. And HUD wants tenants like this to stay]

“To reverse course on the basis of a deeply flawed Inspector General report, a few sensationalized and exaggerated media accounts, and ill-informed commentary from some pundits would be a major policy mistake.”

The group represents 1,900 housing authorities. Its counterpart, the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, took the same tack this month in a newsletter to its 2,900 members, describing calls to evict higher-earning tenants from public housing to make way for truly poor families a policy that’s “antithetical to HUD’s mission to affirmatively further fair housing.”

[After criticism, HUD says it’s trying to give the boot to families who earn too much]

The teeth-gnashing from housing advocates underscores a debate that’s likely to continue: How should government encourage low-income families to become self-sufficient? An unsparing audit by HUD’s inspector general found 26,000 families that exceeded the income threshold to get into public housing, nearly half by $10,000 to $70,000.

A family in New York City making $497,911 pays $1,574 for a three-bedroom apartment, investigators found. When we asked the city’s housing authority if it kicks tenants like this out, officials said they should stay because they serve as models for other residents. And when families make more, they usually pay more in rent, which helps offset steep declines in federal public housing subsidies, the authority said.

[Why it actually won’t be easy to kick out public housing tenants who earn too much]

When HUD was first presented with the conclusions of the draft audit by Inspector General David Montoya’s office, the agency strongly objected to all of them. But it changed course once the report was made public. HUD now says it is urging housing authorities nationwide to evict tenants who earn too much to qualify for government subsidies.

There’s wiggle room, though. The law does not allow a housing authority to evict a tenant just because they earn too much money. So HUD cannot force local officials to comply.

“If these families are forced to move out,” Kaiser wrote in his letter to Castro and every member of Congress, “the likely scenario is that extremely low income persons will now occupy the units, which means less dwelling rental income and the need for more subsidies based on the current funding formula.”

HUD spokesman Cameron French said, “We have the letter and will review and respond.”