Despite reports of families earning above-average incomes and living indefinitely in low-income housing, experts insist such scenarios are rare.
Associated Press reported in early November a family living in public housing in Shawano County, Wisconsin is earning $100,000 annually — more than double the limit allowed under law. The article said the Inspector General’s office found 25,000 similar cases across the country.
This can happen because people who apply for public housing through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program only have to meet income requirements at sign-up, and if their income level increases, they can stay indefinitely, according to AP.
But Heidi Wegleitner, Dane County District 2 supervisor and attorney for Legal Action of Wisconsin, said these cases are not common.
Public housing is a complicated system, she explained, and not every housing program follows the same financing procedure.
Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority is an independent authority that oversees low-income tax credits and makes housing policies, Wegleitner said, but the group’s spokesperson, Kevin Fischer, said in an email to The Badger Herald it is in no way related to the Shawano family situation.
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WHEDA deals with the Housing Choice Voucher program that they administer for the federal Housing and Urban Development program, Fischer said, which is not part of this specific family’s case.
Fischer said on the voucher program, the participant’s income eligibility is verified at least annually and if it increases to the point where the family is not receiving any assistance, they are removed from the program after a 180-day grace period. There are no lifetime-benefits, regardless of income on HCV, Fischer said.
Lisa Alexander, a University of Wisconsin Law School professor, said people often use the terms “affordable housing,” “Section 8” and “public housing” interchangeably, but they technically apply to different income levels.
Wegleitner said it is not uncommon for people’s income level to rise after they move into an affordable housing unit. She said part of the purpose of affordable housing is so families can make more money so they eventually do not have to depend on public housing.
“The worst thing in the world would be to dis-incentivize people from wanting to work more, wanting to climb the economic ladder,” Wegleitner said.
People might be able to stay in public housing even if they begin to make more money than the income limit, she said. This is because if their income shifts quickly due to losing their job and they are forced to move out, they still have housing. But the rules vary from unit to unit, she said.
Alexander said throughout the country the demand for public housing exceeds the supply, and Wegleitner said Wisconsin and Madison specifically see that at a pressing level.
Wegleitner said though Dane County is experiencing a rise in demand for more housing, the rent prices are rarely in the range of Madison’s low-income population.
The rental vacancy rate in Madison is historically low, Wegleitner said, which allows landlords to be picky in who they allow to live in their buildings. Wegleitner said that puts people who have a poor credit score at a disadvantage.
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Alexander also said when there is less housing available to people in general — not just people who need affordable — that can create pressures for affordable housing.
“The people who need more affordable rents are less likely to get them because landlords have an incentive to make the rents higher because now they have more people who want to rent and more people who are willing to pay a higher market rent,” Alexander said.
Wegleitner said at the federal level, too, public housing spending has been slashed. She said Wisconsin does not have much state funding for affordable housing.
Wegleitner said other states have stepped up to invest in affordable housing and have enabled municipalities to do more when it comes to regulating landlords and developers, but Wisconsin has not done that.
“That isn’t because there aren’t wonderful organizations here who are trying to do that,” Wegleitner said. “It just hasn’t been seemingly a priority for the Legislature.”