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Public Housing in McKean County (Part II)

Sunday, June 5, 2016 10:31 pm

By FRAN De LANCEY Era Correspondent, The Bradford Era

(Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series looking at public housing in McKean County.)

One of the most misunderstood parts of American life, public housing is government-funded, locally run apartment buildings, single-family homes or other types of dwellings priced at rents low-income households can afford.

One of two forms of government subsidized housing, the Housing Choice Voucher program, known as Section 8, supplies low-income renters with rent subsidies they can use in the private market.

Federal rental assistance helps struggling seniors, veterans, disabled and working families live in safe and sanitary housing and make ends meet.

More than 219,000 low-income households in Pennsylvania use federal rental assistance to rent modest housing at an affordable cost; with at least 66 percent having extra-low incomes, 30 percent of area median income or less. In 2015, there were 15,421 individuals and families experiencing homelessness or are at-risk of homelessness.

Particularly hard hit by homelessness are veterans who comprise one-third of this group in the U.S. Veterans, often those with distinguished, even heroic military service, are ending up living on the streets. Unfortunately, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the veteran population continues to grow.

In the case of Pennsylvania working families using rental assistance, in 2014, 68 percent of non-elderly, non-disabled households worked, had worked recently or likely were subject to work requirements in other programs.

Rental assistance helps families in rural and urban areas. More than 11 percent of the state’s households receiving rental assistance live in non-metropolitan areas.

“Locally, the McKean County Housing Authority administers the Section 8 and public housing programs,” said Dusti Dennis, the agency’s executive director.

In 1976, four buildings for the elderly and four family sites were built in Smethport, Port Allegany and Eldred. Six years later, the authority developed an elderly unit, Riley Road Apartments, and family units: Fosterview Apartments in Foster Township.

In Kane, Central Towers with 84 units was built in 1978, and this was followed in 1983 by the family units on Welsh Street. The family units on Phillips Street in Mount Jewett were developed in 1996. Then, in 2014, the county housing authority received the transfer of the 200 units in Bradford City.

Statistics from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan research and policy institute founded in 1981 to analyze federal budget priorities with particular focus on how budget choices affected low-income Americans, showed that most Pennsylvania renters in need receive no assistance and more are paying more than half of their income for housing than before the recent depression that began in 2008 with the housing market correction and subprime mortgage crisis.

On May 16, Pennsylvania announced a five-year affordable housing strategy, which is designed to enhance and expand the use of the housing network database operated by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency that can be used to match those needing housing with affordable housing throughout the state, and continuing the “Rapid Rehousing” pilot program that is ongoing in Philadelphia to help those who have recently become homeless and those who have experienced housing instability find permanent housing.

When housing costs consume more than 50 percent of household income, low-income families face a greater risk of becoming homeless.

In a Sept. 15, 2015, article in the Washington Post, David Madden, an assistant professor of sociology at The London School of Economics, wrote, “And far from a relic, dependable and affordable housing is more important now than ever; if you work full-time for the minimum wage in America, the number of states where you can afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment on the private market is exactly zero.”

Still, many politicians who have never lived in public housing consider it to be a failure.

Nevertheless, research has revealed that a great majority of the more than 2 million people living in publicly-owned rental housing don’t consider it a failure. Numerous studies show that housing choice vouchers are very effective at making housing affordable, reducing the rates of homelessness and instability.

A sampling of McKean Countians living in subsidized housing certainly don’t share this opinion.

For example, one person said, “It has helped me move out of a sibling’s home and be on my own. Without this rental assistance, I could not live on my own.”

To critics of Section 8 housing, this person responds by saying there are just as many non-Section 8 renters who are bad or even worse, and the housing authority does its best to screen for bad tenants and that the landlords have to do their part in screening for bad tenants.

For another tenant who retired from a large city and moved back to the area to be closer to family, “I thought this would be a good safe place for me to be. The affordable housing is close to everything I need. The grounds and common are well maintained. If you see anything needing attention, you just call and it gets immediate attention.”

Another tenant with a child, said, “There was a perception that housing in this area was

crime-ridden and full of drugs. I have learned, though, everybody struggles to get by to make ends meet. These families are not criminals or drug addicts.”

Public housing allows this employed person to afford rent and utilities, while providing a safe place for the child to play.

Answering those people who oppose assisted housing, this tenant replies, “Come and see. If you come to the table with criticism, also come with a solution.”

And there is a couple who receive help through the Bridge Subsidy Program, which provides rental assistance until the family’s name comes up on the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher. One is employed and the other is enrolled in a job training program through CareerLink.

“We are a young working family, and we follow the rules,” one said. “It’s OK to ask for help. I know what I am and what I have to do. We feel nothing negative about ourselves, and we are working hard to have a home of our own.”

This couple says they feel safe in their building and neighborhood.

The vouchers benefit the communities. In Pennsylvania in 2014, private landlords received $473,800,000 in HCV payments. Not only did this money help the owners pay the property taxes, but it prevented blight by maintaining properties in good condition.

With only being in that program for three months, they agree that it’s better than living with other people in a small apartment.

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