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Public Housing in McKean County (Part I)

By FRAN De LANCEY Era Correspondent, The Bradford Era, June 4, 2016

While there is a need for decent and affordable housing in most American cities, myths and misunderstandings often cloud the issue.

Public housing remains controversial even though many of the stereotypes associated with it have been debunked over the years.

In an article entitled “The Power of Public Housing” that appeared in the Sept. 22, 2015, issue of The Atlantic Magazine, historian and author Ed Goetz, a professor at the University of Minnesota, was quoted as saying, “The story of American public housing is one of quiet successes and drowned out by loud failures.”

Public housing was established to provide safe and decent housing rental housing for eligible low-income families, the elderly and disabled persons.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Public housing comes in all sizes and types, from scattered single-family houses to high rise apartments for the elderly.”

Enacted during the worst days of the Great Depression, the Housing Act of 1937, also known as the Wagner-Steagall Act, is the federal legislation that provides for subsidies to be paid by the federal government to the local housing agencies in order to improve living conditions for eligible applicants.

Initially, the law was controversial, but it gained acceptance and some of its provisions have endured but in amended form.

Dusti Dennis, executive director of the McKean County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities, said, “That law required that for each new public housing unit created, a unit of substandard quality must be removed. This one-to-one policy ensured that the federal government would increase the quality of housing but not the quantity.”

Operational decisions were left to local authorities, assuring that communities that didn’t want public housing could avoid it, and those that did could determine the project’s location. While the federal government provided the funding, the ownership and daily administration rested with the local agency, appointed by local officials. The McKean County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities have provided housing and community development services since 1971.

In 2014, approximately 1.2 million households resided in public housing units managed by some of the 3,300 housing agencies.

Many people usually include all federally-assisted housing under the banner of “public housing” when in reality, public housing is only one of the several federal programs that provide low-cost housing to qualified applicants.

In recent decades, public housing has taken on more and more formats. Since the 1970s, subsidized housing has been increasingly funded through rent vouchers rather than through the construction of large complexes.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the federal government has used funds from the HOPE VI program to tear down dilapidated public housing projects and replace them with mixed-income communities constructed with private partners.

For legal residents of the United States who don’t make enough money to pay for rent or mortgages, they could qualify for Section 8 housing, also known as housing choice vouchers. By law, a public housing agency must provide 75 percent of its vouchers to applicants whose incomes do not exceed 30 percent of the area’s median income.

“Section 8” refers that section of the Housing Act of 1937. It is the federal government’s major program for assisting the very low income families, the elderly and disabled to afford decent, safe and sanitary housing in the private market.

Crime rates are higher in public housing, says one myth. Actually, studies show crime rates are lower in public housing than in the general public.

Individuals and families who apply for public housing undergo extensive screening procedures and are checked for both criminal records and previous tenant records from private landlords. Working families have higher priority than non-working families in the application procedure.

Public housing agencies have strict rules about tenants’ criminal pasts and conduct of tenants and their guest. They work closely with local law enforcement to keep the units and their residents as safe as possible.

HUD sets the federal guidelines for admission to public housing.

“After an application is received, the county housing authority verifies the individual’s or family’s eligibility,” Dennis said. “Gross annual income and family size are considered as our authority evaluates the eligibility for a housing voucher.”

The agency may use a system of “preferences” — giving some people a higher place on the waiting list. As an example, it could give preference to victims of domestic violence or families with a disabled person.

Those people with extensive criminal backgrounds and Megan’s Law offenders don’t qualify.

Once applicants are approved for public housing, they must be given the best estimate of they can move in. “Almost 400 housing choice vouchers are now in use in the county, and that’s the highest amount we’ve ever had,” Dennis said.

The eligible people are free to choose any house that meets the requirements of the program and is not limited to units located in subsidized housing projects.

Eligible individuals or families receiving a voucher are responsible for finding a suitable housing unit of their choice where the owner agrees to rent under the program. That unit could even be the family’s current residence.

One myth calls affordable public housing “cheap” and “undesirable.”

However, builders of affordable housing must comply with all the same restrictions on design and construction standards as market-rate projects. And, because affordable housing projects frequently rely on public money, they must comply with additional restrictions and higher standards than market-rate housing.

Rental units must meet the minimum standards of health and safety as determined by the housing authority. Section 8 properties undergo annual inspections. Landlords are required to correct any deficiencies.

Those people with vouchers often must pay up to 30 percent of their rent and utilities, while the remainder will be covered by the Section 8 subsidy.

Another popular myth is that public housing attracts “the wrong people.”

According to The Washington Post, “The reality is that public housing is home to many different communities of lower-income households. HUD says the average income of public housing residents is a bit more than $4,000 per year. More than 50 percent have annual household incomes between $5,000 and $15,000. But they are monolithically poor; fewer than a third receive welfare benefits.”

From the stereotype of public housing, it’s difficult to realize that far more people are trying to get into it that those wanting to leave it. Almost all of the nation’s housing units have waiting lists.

Since the demand for assistance frequently exceeds the often limited resources available to HUD and local housing agencies, waiting lists are not uncommon.

“In fact,” Dennis said, “local housing agencies may close their waiting lists when the number of families exceeds the number that can be assisted in the near future.”

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