A New York City family earned nearly $500,000, yet lived for years in a public housing apartment for families with maximum incomes of $67,100. In Los Angeles, a five-member family earned nearly three times the income limit for their apartment.
The eye-popping anecdotes were highlighted in a recent audit of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, is touting that audit in seeking a congressional investigation and demanding that millions for affordable housing be withheld unless HUD takes action.
Yet a closer inspection reveals that income ineligibility is far from widespread — and it barely exists in Jolly's own Pinellas County district.
Nationwide, the July audit concluded, more than 25,000 families had incomes exceeding HUD's 2014 eligibility limits, or about 2.3 percent of the 1.1 million families who are in public housing.
In the Tampa Bay area, four housing authorities — Tampa, Pinellas, St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs — accounted for a total of 52 of Florida's 299 cases. The local numbers have changed, according to more recent data the authorities provided to the Tampa Bay Times.
• Pinellas has three cases in its 310 units.
• St. Petersburg has three, but they reside at Jordan Park Apartments, a 237-unit complex that is privately owned and managed. None of the families in the 134 units the authority owns exceed income requirements.
• Tarpon Springs has none in its 110 units.
• The Tampa Housing Authority has 21, about half of 1 percent of the 3,406 units the authority owns, said chief operating officer Leroy Moore.
Some local housing authorities are considering new policies to force out over-income tenants. Others worry that crafting rules fueled by outrage over extreme and outlier cases will hurt families working toward self sufficiency.
"There's a rush to overreact," Moore said. "And overreacting against programs that benefit the most vulnerable of our population just doesn't seem wise."
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The audit, by HUD's Office of the Inspector General, concluded that the department spent about $104 million in 2014 to pay for the housing for 25,226 families that had earned more than the maximum qualifying amount, which is based on 80 percent of the median income for the county or metro area.
But what does it mean to exceed income limits? In the 21 cases at the Tampa Housing Authority, incomes surpassed the threshold by as little as $5 to as much as $27,610. The average amount over the limit was about $7,600. Over-income tenants have resided there for as little as one year to as long as 13 years.
HUD has no policy requiring housing authorities to kick out tenants who exceed income limits. Instead, a department rule gives local officials discretion to require over-income families to find housing in the unassisted market.
The audit recommended that HUD order housing authorities to create those policies to lower the number of over-income families.
HUD officials called the audit's methodology flawed. A blanket policy might not take into account all of the reasons why over-income families are living in public housing, they said. After Jolly called for a congressional investigation, department officials sent letters to local housing authorities "strongly" encouraging them to remove "extremely over-income families."
Jolly, who is running for U.S. Senate, wants mandatory reforms that weed out egregious cases without putting "undue hardships on families in transition," he said.
"The reason I keep asking for an investigation and to withhold funding is to encourage (HUD) to expedite a solution that's right for families in housing, right for the families on waiting lists and right for the taxpayers," he said.
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Debbie Johnson, executive director of the Pinellas authority, plans to present a policy to her board that would allow tenants to exceed income limits for a period of time, perhaps six months. After that, they'd be given a 30-day notice to move.
"Families that are doing well are going to be up to that challenge of going to the next step," Johnson said.
Melinda Perry, interim CEO of the St. Petersburg authority, said she will propose a similar policy to her board in the coming weeks.
But it's not an issue in Tarpon Springs, said Housing Authority director Pat Weber. The few times Weber said she does see over-income families, they tend to be elderly residents whose Social Security and pension bump them over the income threshold. Tenants can be over-income but still feel trapped by the rental market's rates.
"The worst thing we could do is take away their housing," Weber said. "They'd be homeless."
Moore said his agency is compiling data on over-income families to answer two key questions: How long have they exceeded income limits, and why?
"Why kick Mom and the rest of the family out when that's not a sustained level of income?" Moore said. "It could be creating a far worse situation."
Jarnescia Minnis is one of those names on the list for income eligibility. She, her boyfriend and 3-year-old daughter have lived in the Tampa authority's Arbors complex for about a year. The couple's household income is $49,900, or about $6,500 more than the limit for their two-bedroom apartment. But Minnis said she recently left her administrative job at Tampa International Airport to focus on getting her associate's degree, so only her boyfriend works now, making $12.50 at a call center.
"People are in this housing because they keep falling on hard times, or because circumstances change," Minnis said. "Both of our goals right now is to get a degree so we can get out of here, but that's going to take some time."
Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.