TAMPA — More than a decade ago, James Gaines suffered a head injury that left him unable to work.
His disability check gives him about $700 to live on each month. Every other Saturday, he goes to a church food drive to pick up free items like peanut butter and packet stew.
So a federal plan that could raise the rent he pays for his one-bedroom apartment in Tampa Park Apartments has him angry and distressed.
"I have rats come into the apartment, and they want me to pay more?" he said. "I can't afford any more rent."
Rent increases are part of a proposal to reform housing assistance programs recently announced by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. Stricter work requirements to qualify for housing subsidies and higher minimum rents also are proposed.
The plan would result in a 44 percent rent hike for more than 4 million low-income households, according to a study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank. That would include tens of thousands of families in subsidized housing in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.
Currently, a family in subsidized housing pays no more than 30 percent of its income on rent. The HUD plan would raise that to 35 percent, an average hike of $117 per month. The minimum a family would pay could triple from $50 to $150 per month.
"The vast majority of our families, they will be paying more if this goes through," said Leroy Moore, chief operating officer of the Tampa Housing Authority.
The rent increase would have to be approved by Congress. But other parts of the plan could be implemented by HUD as regulation changes.
Moore said he is most concerned about a provision to eliminate income deductions for families who pay medical or child care expenses.
Under the current program, those costs are deducted before a family's 30 percent rent is calculated. Carson's plan would eliminate those deductions, essentially raising the rent.
"People are in public housing for a reason: they can't afford market rent," Moore said. "These people are struggling, making choices between buying medicine and feeding their children."
The reforms proposed by HUD are intended to reduce waiting lists, make it simpler for landlords to calculate rent subsidies and to rein in the cost of housing assistance programs.
The number of people seeking public housing or housing vouchers is so high that many housing authorities including Tampa's and St. Petersburg's have closed waiting lists. Housing advocates estimate that only one quarter of people who qualify live in subsidized housing.
"Every year, it take more money, millions more, to serve the same number of households," Carson said during a recent conference call. "It's clear that from a budget perspective, and from a human point of view, the current system is unsustainable."
Current HUD rules require the recalculation of rent every time a tenant gets a new job or pay raise. That acts as a disincentive for low-income families to better themselves, Carson said.
His plan would also allow housing authorities and voucher landlords to set tougher work requirements for tenants, to act as a spur to get more tenants in the labor force.
The Tampa Housing Authority, which owns more than 3,000 public housing units and also administers about 9,000 housing vouchers, already requires tenants to be working, training for a job or making documented efforts to find a job.
The perception that people in public housing don't work and are happy to live off welfare doesn't match reality, Moore said.
In Robles Park in East Tampa, arguably the city's poorest public housing complex, 115 of the 432 apartments have someone working, Moore said. Tenants are routinely questioned about their spending and efforts to find work.
"How are they getting their nails done or getting gas?" he said. "We get into their business and it's a very uncomfortable inquisition we put them through for this work requirement."
St. Petersburg Housing Authority houses about 960 people in its 391 public housing units. Another 8,650 people in the city receive rent subsidies through housing vouchers.
CEO Tony Love said the proposed new $150 minimum rent would be unaffordable for many of the poorest families but agrees the current $50 minimum is too low. It should be closer to $100, he said.
"It would give people an incentive to get out and do more for themselves," he said.
Shant Milhouse, an unemployed hairdresser, lives with her family at Tampa Park Apartments, an income-restricted community close to Ybor City.
She said many people there want to work but don't because the extra income will be swallowed by rent increases.
"It's unfair," she said.
Close by, Suzana Ruiz lives in a three-bedroom apartment. She works as a licensed practical nurse. Her husband is training to get a truck driver's license.
They pay the $545 monthly rent without any subsidy. She does get help from a state program to pay medical expenses for treatment of her daughter's hearing loss.
It upsets her when she sees neighboring apartments full of people who are not working.
"Someone needs to work," she said. "I know I need my job to help with the treatment."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446.