HUD should remove over-income tenants

Published Oct. 14, 2015

Congressman David Jolly is right to demand that the Department of Housing and Urban Development stop letting people whose income exceeds allowable thresholds live in public housing. The Indian Shores Republican has called for a congressional investigation into the issue and, this week, threatened to pull $104 million from HUD's budget if the agency fails to fix the problem. This is a serious misuse of taxpayer money that was intended to help the truly needy instead of those who can afford to stand on their own.

Jolly first demanded action on over-income tenants this summer after HUD's inspector general published an audit of public housing agencies. According to the report, there are 25,226 families across the nation who live in public housing even though they make too much, based on HUD's 2014 eligibility requirements. Auditors estimated that it would cost taxpayers $104.4 million in the next year to pay for them, which is why Jolly settled on that number to cut from the budget.

In one of the report's most egregious examples, a New York City family was allowed to live in public housing despite earning combined salaries of $497,911 a year. The family, which entered public housing in 1988, pays $1,574 in rent for a three-bedroom apartment in New York and has exceeded income levels since 2009. These kind of flagrant abusers need to be evicted to make room for families with fewer resources.

In Florida, 297 families live in public housing despite earning too much. The Tampa Housing Authority has the highest number of over-income tenants in the state with 40 families exceeding income thresholds, including one family whose income is $115,252. Pinellas County and St. Petersburg have 10 over-income tenants between them.

Federal law requires that families meet income requirements when they enter public housing. As long as tenants comply with lease agreements, they do not have to leave once their income grows beyond allowable levels. This is a huge gap in regulations that is ripe for abuse, and HUD should help local public housing agencies close it. In Florida, people in public housing exceeded the allowable income by as little as $16 and as much as $70,000 a year. Any new regulation should go after egregious cases while allowing for discretion at the local level for families that only slightly exceed income requirements.

Public housing officials defend their decision to allow over-income tenants to remain in subsidized housing by reasoning that they pay higher rents, model the benefits of hard work for other tenants and improve income diversity. These are laudable traits, but poor people should not be relegated to waiting lists for public housing while those who can afford to enter the private rental market remain on the public dole.

Public housing was designed to assist low-income families, the elderly and people with disabilities. Years of inaction by local housing authorities on over-income tenants prove that federal reform is necessary. Jolly should continue to apply pressure until HUD institutes more sensible controls.