The State Of Section 8

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Advocates for public and subsidized housing tenants provided residents and activists with new information about HUD and CHA at a conference April 28 in downtown Chicago. The conference was held in the beautiful surroundings of the Holiday Inn located on the corner of Columbus and Ohio streets. This conference in many ways resembled the one held March 16 by the Chicago Rehab Network at the Palmer House Hotel. This conference was far more interactive that the March 16 event; participants attended various workshops.

The workshops were geared towards the distribution of new information. Due to the workshops’ small size, the atmosphere was that of an intense training ground for activists. It was an atmosphere in which everyone appeared excited and eager to get involved. Everyone – whites and Blacks, rich and poor, scholarly and unlearned harmonized.

At the first workshop I attended, I was pleased to meet attorney James Grow from the National Housing Law Project again. Grow clarified many of the laws recently passed at the federal level. He informed those attending his workshop about changes in federal law since his address at the Palmer House in March. All of those present – including myself – who could be displaced due to landlords’ opting out of the “project-based Section 8” buildings were glad to hear what Grow had to say about revisions to enhanced housing choice vouchers.

Grow said enhanced vouchers are available to all of those tenants currently living in project-based Section 8 buildings where owners have decided to opt out of the program. The enhanced vouchers are not exactly the same as other vouchers but they also are administered by the local housing authority. In Chicago, the vouchers are administered through CHAC Inc.

Grow said tenants can use the enhanced vouchers to stay or move. But the enhanced vouchers are different from other vouchers in their value and displacement protection. For tenants who stay, the enhanced vouchers can cover the entire amount of the rent increase beyond 30 percent of income if the local housing authority, in our case CHAC, finds the new rent “reasonable.” If not, the tenant could be forced to move. Also, the units must pass CHAC’s Housing Quality Standards (HQS).

For tenants who move, the value of the enhanced voucher is based on a regular CHAC payment standard or Fair Market Rent, the tenant’s income and prior rent. CHAC’s payment standard should usually be between 90 percent and 110 percent of Fair Market Rent.

On displacement protection, Grow said the law has now been clarified. The tenant has the choice to remain with no stated qualifications, according to the HUD Guide published Jan. 19.

“Don’t move,” said Grow. “If you move, your Enhanced Voucher will lose some of its value.”

Money must be appropriated by the U.S. Congress every year to renew the Enhanced Vouchers. HUD can now cap subsidies at some “reasonable” percentage of local fair market rents only if there is no harm to tenants, Grow said.

The workshops were plentiful, brimming with new information and new insights on how to handle some old and some not-so-new problems.

I next went to a workshop held by Doug Schenkelberg from the Chicago Mutual Housing Network, a not-for-profit organization which advocates for resident control and management of properties. Originally created as a program of the Center for Neighborhood Technology in 1989, the Chicago Mutual Housing Network went on its own in 1994. They work primarily on low- and moderate-income resident management.

Schenkelberg talked about how to foster relationships between tenants, landlords and property managers. Schenkelberg said that all three parties were in fact working for the same things: everyone wants a good building, good tenants and everything to run smoothly.

“I tried to show how self-interests overlapped while also acknowledging that there are real differences and not trying to gloss over them. For instance, I would not say that as soon as you understand that everyone has similar self-interests, everything is happy go lucky,” said Schenkelberg during an interview after the workshop.

“Rather, there are still issues which need to be worked out. People still diverge. However, as long as you have this basic understanding where you connect, that makes those issues where there is conflict easier to deal with.”

Schenkelberg continued, “I wanted to use these things as a starting point for a discussion about possible conflicts. And so we ran through some discussion about how do we begin to get at self interest.

“We first began by trying to understand what are the main interests of all the parties involved. And, it’s a huge step for people to recognize that. Most of the time, communication is based in conflict, focusing on what is wrong and how we are different. Therefore, many of those conversations do not go very far because everyone is just so upset with each other.”

Schenkelberg was genuinely trying to get the landlords, tenants and property managers, in each case, to see how their own self-interest also serves the self-interests of the others.

I decided to interview at least one of those responsible for getting a few things done behind the scenes of the Tenants United for Housing conference. I wanted to know, for instance, how does the ordinary, everyday worker define what it is they do and also what motivates them. I wanted to get the foot soldiers’ definition of their activism. I did not want to interview board members or others in the forefront of the organization.

I spoke with Laverne Nickson, who is active in Tenants United for Housing.

“Everybody who lives in HUD housing should be involved in efforts to save affordable housing,” said Nickson to my query as to why people become activists.

Since I’ve noticed that many residents of public and subsidized housing feel a great deal of apathy, I asked Nickson how she became comfortable being an activist for social, political and economic change. She answered, Everyone fights for what they want. Corporations, the wealthy, or lesser entities. If they are passionate about what they want, they must and they will get involved and fight for what they want automatically.

“Personally I think that people should advocate for what they need, whatever it is that they are committed to, and feel passionate about. One thing that people must understand is that alone you can not accomplish very much. However, when you advocate with others who feel the same as you do –as is the case with a group – where each one obviously has the same interests as you, only then does it seem that one is able to accomplish what they want.”

Next, I spoke with Charles Daas, the current head of the Chicago Mutual Housing Network about the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation:

“One of the reasons we have been interested in the transformation in CHA and public housing is that we see cooperatives as a great solution to deal with the affordable housing crisis in Chicago, said Daas.

“Essentially, we were established to work with resident-controlled and managed housing and cooperatives. For us, these are the ways of providing the ultimate in resident control. Whenever I visit the Chicago Housing Authority developments or other affordable rental properties, the residents do not have control over the development. It clearly is in hands of the property manager or some larger entity like the CHA. “With the cooperatives, the residents actually learn and through the day-to-day affairs of the building, they learn and take on leadership roles in property and financial management. Which is not something that can typically be achieved with rental properties. And so, we look at this as a way of – to use a well-worn term – empowerment. This also will provide people with a nest egg with an equity investment in the property. Because when families convert from a rental to a cooperative, or just say form a cooperative from the ground up, they make an equity investment of say $1,000, what we call a share payment, which is a portion of the value of the cooperative.

“The similarity is to a rental property where you will have a security deposit. However, in a co-op, there is no such thing as a security deposit. You have a share payment which is your equity stake in the development and then you have monthly, what we call carrying charges, which include the cost of occupying the unit, the insurance and the taxes. In a cooperative, that equity earns interest and value over time. “This then is not only a form of home ownership but also a much more freeing experience.”

In the case of CHA involvement, Daas felt cooperatives would loosen the frequently overwhelmingly paternalistic feeling that accompanies being a tenant at CHA. From cooperatives, Daas implied residents will get a lot of experience in entrepreneurship.

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