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Housing-assistance program has severe flaws on the local level

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MAY 13, 2009 7:26 AM

At the heart of the tenant-landlord relationship is trust.

Though money may seem a substitute for trust, it often does little to calm fears from both the tenant and landlord have that the other party may not honor a housing agreement. Such fears arise if a landlord sees a tenant with questionable renting and payment history. Such is the predicament for people who receive financial housing assistance from the government.

In order to ensure tenant-landlord trust, the city must provide more oversight in administering housing-assistance programs. Rather than just handing money to struggling individuals, local government should play an active role in helping people maintain their housing agreements.

Section Eight is a federally funded program that assists local residents with paying rent. Local governments receive funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Development and pay a portion the rent for qualified residents; sometimes they pay the majority of the rent. Eligible applicants must meet a certain criteria for the rent subsidies: They must be the head of a household who earns less than 30 percent of the median income in their local area, be elderly, or be disabled. Iowa City Housing Administrator Steve Rackis said individuals who meet the income criteria may apply for Section Eight housing, but the city tends to favor families over individuals and disabled and elderly individuals over other individuals.

Rackis also said Iowa City screens applicants for violent and criminal history using Iowa’s Division of Criminal Investigation and the FBI. Everyone over 18 in a family that applies is screened, and anyone with a violent or criminal history involving serious felonies, the city turns down. Rackis said officials do make case-by-case exceptions to this rule if mitigating circumstances are involved. He spoke of a case concerning an individual with a criminal history who also suffered a mental illness. Psychiatrists had misdiagnosed the individual, and the person carried out criminal acts as a result. Rackis said the individual, after receiving a correct diagnosis and treatment, was accepted into the program and has yet to commit another criminal act.

Despite a thorough screening and generous assistance with rent — Iowa City only asks for a $50 minimum contribution from applicants — the city does not assist in finding housing, nor is it involved in the lease agreement. Rackis also said the city does not do a credit check to see if people have a bad payment history. The city signs a separate agreement with the landlord, ensuring it will assist in the rent. It will also adjust its rent contribution if the applicant’s financial situation for the better or worse.

The Section Eight program is a generous program that provides much needed assistance to people in need, and the officials administering the program appear to exercise considerable judgment and flexibility concerning the Section Eight applicants. That is not to say there are cracks in this program. While local government may not officially promote Section Eight applicants to landlords, its assistance with the rent is an unspoken voucher. That they pay the rent, sign an agreement to pay the rent, but do not actually sign the lease with the tenants has made some landlords uneasy in accepting people receiving Section Eight aid. From a landlord’s point of view it may be hard to accept people with questionable payment and criminal history without other assurances from the city, despite the promise of regular revenue.

This may also be harmful to the tenants as well. Rent is not the only housing expense a tenant pays. The landlord may demand recompense or reimbursement for maintenance or perhaps even damages from the tenant as the lease progresses. Because the city does not sign the lease with the tenant, the landlord may ask for such additional expenses solely from the tenant, though the tenant may not be able to pay them.

There’s also reason for concern regarding the exceptions Iowa City makes in accepting people with violent or criminal histories. Take the example of the individual who committed criminal acts because of mental issues. If that person maintains treatment, then he no longer poses a danger. However, that is totally contingent on that individual continuing treatment. There can be numerous scenarios where that individual fails to maintain treatment and is therefore capable again of committing criminal acts. Local government takes no steps to monitor the individual’s situation to see if he has stopped treatment. This gap in procedure can have dangerous consequences for everyone involved. The city does not have to proactively monitor the individual. It can coordinate efforts with health-care professionals responsible for that individual’s treatment. The city would do well to fill that and other cracks in the system. If it does that, it could bolster much-needed trust.


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