Karen Fratti
April 29, 2018 12:59 pm
ichael Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images

The Trump administration definitely has an agenda, and if you’re poor, that agenda really isn’t going to work in your favor, no matter what they say to defend it. This week, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, former neurologist Ben Carson, introduced Trump’s new housing plan, which will likely affect almost 5 million poor families.

HUD is the agency that gives states and cities federal funding for their public housing initiatives and helps burdened families pay their rent, as per the New Deal’s United States Housing Act of 1937. It was supposed to allocate funds to “eradicate slums,” and provide safe and sanitary housing to people who couldn’t afford it. That didn’t quite work out as planned.

Right now, tenants who get federal assistance pay 30 percent of their adjusted income toward rent, the minimum being 450. Carson’s plan, approved by Donald Trump, of course, is called the Making Affordable Housing Work Act and would make people pay 35 percent of their income or 35 percent of whatever they earn working 15 hours a week at the federal minimum wage, which is about $150 right now. This means that HUD is effectively tripling the rent for low-income families who get assistance from the government.

$100 might seem like an inconsequential amount of money, but for families living in poverty, it’s a whole lot. Most families who get assistance are already working minimum wage jobs, so if they can’t swing rent without getting some help already, raising it by $100 isn’t exactly going to make their lives easier.

That’s sort of the point. Carson’s plan is totally in line with the ethos of the Trump administration, which has already been talking about making all benefit programs contingent on work requirements and the idea that people can “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” to get out of poverty. What they forget, according to most housing advocates, is that people aren’t poor because of some personal defect. There are systemic reasons why people remain in poverty that go all the way back to the founding of the country. Racism is one of them. Not funding things like education or health care in the name of giving wealthy people tax breaks are others.

But this belief that “poor people won’t or don’t work” and that that’s the root of all poverty is why Carson’s plan will also allow housing agencies to impose work requirements on their tenants if they want any assistance. People who are elderly or disabled would be exempt from work requirements for the first six years, at least. But the thing is, more than half of housing assistance recipients already work and juggle child care. Giving them more requirements, paperwork to fill out, and deadlines to meet sets them up for failure instead of success. Most minimum wage jobs are precarious and scheduled randomly, so you don’t know what days you’re working until the week begins. It’s hard to make life work when you’re living like that.

But that’s not what Carson and the plan’s other supporters think. The belief is that higher rents and work requirements will incentivize people to…well, that’s not really clear. Right now, HUD believes that people who get housing assistance aren’t getting better paying jobs because they don’t want to lose their benefits. Carson said as much in flowery language this week in a press statement:

By “tax” on new income, he means HUD lessening their benefits. To believe this, you have to truly believe that poor people enjoy being poor. Because, you know, public housing is so nice and comfortable and safe. (We’re kidding, the public housing system nationwide is generally a disaster. In places like New York City, for example, the housing authority has been allegedly falsifying reports of lead paint in its apartments. No one would pick living in public housing over an affordable market rate apartment without toxic chemicals peeling off the walls.)

But don’t take our word for it. Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, explained to CityLab why rent hikes and work requirements won’t work. “Despite claims that these harmful proposals will increase ‘self-sufficiency,’ rent hikes, de facto time limits, and arbitrary work requirements will only leave more people without stable housing, making it harder for them to climb the economic ladder,” she said.

The only good thing about Carson’s plan is that it has to be approved by Congress before going into effect. Which means that you can call your legislators and tell them what you think of this plan before they vote. It’s a midterm election year, which means no one wants to vote on something that could be controversial. So if the idea of raising rent on millions of poor people and forcing them to get jobs that they already have, give them a call, send an email, and enlist your friends to do the same.

Advertisement