The late Celestine Stevens: mom to one, nanny to another (copy)

Gadsden Green public housing in downtown Charleston in 2015. 

 
 
 
Charleston’s housing crisis is so acute that even families earning modest incomes struggle to find affordable homes. And the region’s low-wage workers face an almost impossible task affording market-rate rents. Not surprisingly, the supply of public housing is woefully inadequate to meet demand.

So it would be disastrous to make it even more expensive to live in public housing in Charleston. But that’s what Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson recently proposed doing.

Mr. Carson’s proposal involves raising the minimum rent for HUD housing from $50 per month to $150 and increasing rents for other tenants from 30 percent of their gross income to 35 percent. Certain deductions for medical and child expenses would also be eliminated, and housing authorities would be free to impose work requirements.

 

The idea, Mr. Carson has said, is to level the playing field and encourage self-sufficiency. But his plan would almost certainly harm low-income families, many of which are already working as hard as possible just to get by.

“Most of the people we serve make 30 to 50 percent of the area median income,” said Charleston Housing Authority CEO and President Donald Cameron in April. His agency oversees about 1,400 public housing units.

Charleston’s public housing tenants are working, but they’re working low-wage but essential jobs. They clean hotel rooms and office buildings, wash dishes, cook fast food and stock shelves. About 90 percent of households receiving assistance nationwide were working, elderly or disabled, according to 2016 HUD data.

A full-time, minimum wage job pays less per month — about $1,200 — than the average rent in the Charleston area — about $1,250. In other words, it’s impossible for low-wage workers to survive without some kind of help.

Of course, it’s in nobody’s best interest to keep families dependent on government handouts. And encouraging people to join the workforce is a crucial goal. But significantly raising rents for the poorest households — especially for those who are already working and struggling to get by — could actually make people more rather than less dependent on government assistance.

Mr. Carson might instead consider focusing on providing better access to training and apprenticeship programs that help people move beyond minimum wage work. Access to better jobs could help families afford market-rate rents and eventually pursue home ownership.

He might also support programs that help low-income families access banking and build credit. People without checking or savings accounts or with low credit scores face significant barriers to renting apartments or buying cars — much less affording a mortgage.

 

And the biggest challenge facing public housing is that there simply isn’t enough of it.

“We only serve about a third to 40 percent at most of income-eligible families,” said Mr. Cameron. That’s a lot of qualifying families left on their own to scrape by.

Secretary Carson’s proposal would need congressional approval before taking effect. It should be a non-starter.

People receiving public assistance ought to be expected to have skin in the game. But most of them already do. And asking them to pay more for their housing — rather than helping them earn and save more — does little to help ensure long-term independence.