TAMPA — Clarence Jones was late making the rent payment on his one-bedroom apartment in the Squire Villa public housing complex five times this year.
Sometimes it was because his paycheck came late. Others, because the 28-year-old didn't get enough hours from his job at a KFC restaurant.
Each one meant a $10 late fee.
But beginning January, that fee will rise to $75 for Jones and many other public housing residents. That has them fretting that they are just one meager paycheck away from falling into arrears and facing eviction.
"It's beyond some people's means," Jones said. "I don't have $75. That would have to come out of my eating budget."
The increase is part of the Tampa Housing Authority's plan to convert all 2,500 of its public housing units to Section 8 housing with the agency acting as landlord. About 1,000 homes are scheduled to make the switch as soon as January.
The move means the authority will no longer rely on public housing funding, which has been a favorite for the Republican-controlled Congress to cut. Instead, rent subsidies will come from the more reliable Section 8 funding pot. That will also make it easier for the agency to borrow money to pay for rehabbing aging structures.
Housing authorities across the country have already taken advantage of the program, which was created by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2012 to address the dearth of funds available to fix up aging public housing stock. Nationwide, some 180,000 units have been approved for conversion to Section 8.
Known as Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, the program makes residents eligible for housing vouchers if they are in good standing after two years. That could give them the chance to escape blighted apartment complexes and move into privately owned Section 8 housing.
The late fee hike is intended to prepare residents for just that outcome, said Housing Authority spokeswoman Lillian Stringer.
"This will incentivize them to pay their rent on time," Stringer said. "We're trying to help them be more self-sufficient. We want them to be ready to go into the real world market and be able to survive."
But late fees are not a mandatory part of RAD and could be challenged by tenant council associations, said Jessica Cassella, staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project, which advocates on behalf of low income tenants. "There is no requirement in RAD for that to happen," she said.
Residents in public housing typically pay about one third of their income in rent to the Housing Authority. The remainder is subsidized by HUD from its operating and capital fund.
Rents are not expected to change once residents switch to Section 8 although there could be changes based on utility allowances. In cases where a family's rent rises by more than 10 percent or by $25, the increase will be phased in over three years.
Rent at Squire Villa is due on the first of the month with a five day grace period before a late fee is assessed. That doesn't always coincide with paychecks, making residents anxious about a $75 hit to their pocketbooks.
"That's expensive," said Janna Jackson, a customer service representative who has lived in Squire Villa for five years. "You might have a bad day at work and your hours get cut."
By contrast, at the luxury SkyHouse apartment tower in Channelside where monthly rents start at $1,415, the late fee is $125.
The switch to RAD also has some residents worried they may end up paying for more repairs. Residents are currently liable for repairs that are beyond normal wear and tear like broken windows and holes in the wall.
But some repairs, like blocked toilets, fall into a gray area.
"Two apartments are hooked up to the same plumbing," said Reva Iman, president of the Robles Park Tenant Council Association. "Are you going to charge both units for a plumbing issue?"
Also, it's not unheard for older or disabled residents to call maintenance when indoor light bulbs fail. Now, they may be charged for those calls.
Repair crews typically tidy up outside apartments. Residents will now be required to clean those areas themselves, said Margaret Jones, the Housing Authority's director of assisted housing.
HUD reports a $26 billion backlog in repairs and public housing rehabilitation nationwide, a consequence of funding cuts over the past decade.
Funding for public housing averaged about $4 billion per year at the start of this century but has plummeted to less than $2 billion since 2012, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
One of the first cities to enroll in RAD was El Paso, Texas, which converted 6,000 homes to Section 8 funding. That enabled the authority there to put together a $250 million financing package for a five-year project to renovate 30 public complexes.
The Tampa Housing Authority's RAD contract with HUD guarantees a funding level of about 92 percent of rent subsidies for 20 years. That secure funding stream means lenders would have more confidence in the authority's ability to repay construction loans, allowing it to borrow more.
Among the projects it will be looking to finance is the razing and redevelopment of Robles Park Village, one of the city's oldest complexes.
Cassella, the attorney at the National Housing Law Project, said RAD has the potential to address a lot of issues that housing authorities and tenants are facing but that there need to be safeguards for tenants.
"The success of the program greatly depends on collaboration between the housing authority, owners and tenants," she said.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.