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August 17, 2013

Housing door slams to needy in Valley

— LEWISBURG — Union County has rescinded 24 Section 8 housing vouchers already issued, rejected 15 recent applications for assistance, and will not accept new clients as a result of the March 1 federal sequester.

More than 275 applicants — many of them working-poor families — are on waiting lists that will last three months to two years.

Or they may not be accepted at all.

Northumberland County has spent all of its Section 8 funds for this year, as well as its reserve, and is operating on temporary contingency funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We don’t have enough money to help,” said Jere Engle, executive director of the Union County Housing Authority. “In 33 years here, I’ve never seen it this bad.”

In June, the Union County Housing Authority helped 457 families; as of Aug. 1, the number was down to 439.

There are at least 60 families the housing authority should be helping, Engle said, but can’t.

Money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds Section 8 housing, already was shrinking over the past 10 years, but the cuts that began with the March 1 federal sequester were deeper still.

For the Union County Housing Authority in 2012, its Section 8 housing choice voucher program received $2,162,830 from the federal government.

This year, the program will get an estimated $2,071,843, said Mary Anne Bridges, who manages the Section 8 program.

That’s 96 percent of what the agency received last year, and that reduction looks small. But conditions haven’t been stagnant. Cuts in Union County residents’ work hours and layoffs continue, Bridges said, making for less money in the pockets of those using the program.

That means their average yearly adjusted income is reduced and they have less to contribute to rent. The municipality’s contribution, therefore, increases, depleting the Union County’s funds.

This has made it difficult for Union and all Pennsylvania counties to meet existing lease agreements with landlords.

Those who leave the program do not create opportunities for others, as the housing authority isn’t taking on new clients.

The Union County Housing Authority doesn’t operate or own public housing, but uses the HUD funds to work through the private rental market via Section 8 vouchers.

Eligible families, considered very low income, make less than half of the county’s median income, which is $56,000 for a family of four.

But according to the authority’s June data, 75 percent, or 275 households, of the county’s clients are in the extremely low income category, making two-thirds less than the median income, or $16,800 for a family of four.

The average annual income for these families in Union County is $12,750, according to the data.

Income is the operative word, Engle said.

These people have jobs, usually two or more, Engle said.

In June, of the 457 Union County households receiving help, just 31 were on any public assistance; the remaining 426 are working poor.

The average tenant rent payment per month is $295. People and families who qualify for assistance pay rent — 30 percent of their annual adjusted income — and the housing authority covers the rest via the voucher.

The problem is not unique to Union County, Engle said.

That 75 percent of its client base has jobs is unique.

Of this base, 204 families include minor children, and 352 families have a female head of household.

As of Aug. 1, households getting help in Union County was down to 439.

What is helping Union County right now is its reserve, Engle said.

HUD funds are a set amount each year, but the federal agency allows a small amount to be put in reserve, a savings account of sorts.

Union County has that. Most counties do, Engle said, but many of them — Northumberland County is one — have gone through their reserves. At that point, a contingency from HUD kicks in. But once that money is gone, each housing authority has to figure out its next move.

In Venango County in Western Pennsylvania, that has meant dissolving the housing authority and turning its functions over to the county commissioners, a decision made in June.

Montgomery County near Philadelphia is tapping reserves, reducing staff hours and leaving 15 percent of staff positions unfilled.

Other counties have furloughed employees. Fortunately for Union County, Bridges said, it hasn’t come to that.

Federal fiscal year 2013 ends Sept. 30. The next fiscal year isn’t looking better, Bridges said, because if a budget isn’t passed, a continuing resolution will keep things as they are.

And if the sequester makes the one-year mark, another 10 percent will be cut from HUD funding. The Senate had a working budget bill, Engle said, but the House version was not workable and neither bill made it out of session.

Union County has reached out to federal representatives.

A staff member from the office of Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., “was shocked,” Engle said, “she couldn’t believe how bad this is” and said she’d take the matter to the senator.

Snyder County fares slightly better.

It has more than enough vouchers but not enough rental housing available for people to use the program. In fact, Snyder County received 99 more vouchers once the Pine Meadow public housing complex in Selinsgrove was sold to Susquehanna University.

Bridges worries those federal funds will never be replaced, which would permanently hinder the ability to serve the poor.

Already there are 278 people and families on Union County’s waiting list. For extremely low income households, what used to be a three- to six-month wait on the list is now 12 to 18 months and getting longer.

Very low income homes now spend 1½ to 2 years on the waiting list.

“Once the HUD money runs out,” Engle said, “every authority will need a game plan.”

He insisted the elderly and disabled “won’t be touched,” but couldn’t say what may happen to everyone else.

n Email comments to esocha@dailyitem.com.

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