Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development has been busy this week. He’s literally been on tour, like an author promoting a book, going around the country visiting homeless services and speaking to builders’ conventions and talking about his new writing. And that new writing is the “Making Affordable Housing Work Act of 2018.” I want to call it “Ben Carson Does a What?” or worse. But I’ll be nice and call it MAHWA.
If I’m going to make fun of proposed laws, it seems like I should actually read them. So I found the proposal online and spent an hour or two holding my eyelids up and scrolling through the text of the thing, powered by coffee.
Basically, the law is 22 pages of amendments to existing laws governing subsidized housing. It’s another in a long string of amendments to the U.S. Housing Act of 1937, the Wagner-Steagall Act. It amends other amendments that have been made over the years, including amendments in the 1970s that provided for Section 8 housing. So it’s all about what’s changing.
What’s mainly changing is low-income housing for everyone who is neither over 65 nor disabled; in other words, your basic just plain poor people.
The biggest change is the amount of rent that’s going to be expected of the just plain poor. Currently subsidized housing rents are 30 percent of income. If MAHWA gets to be law, rents for poor but nondisabled non-elderly will go up to the larger of 35 percent or $150. That last number, $150, is based on a calculation of 35 percent of the income you’d have if you worked 15 hours a week for four weeks at federal minimum wage. If you can’t make that much, whoa. You should consider not living anywhere. You’re too poor.
Another big change is that the assets you’re allowed to have in order to be eligible for assistance will be halved. It was $50,000; MAHWA will make it $25,000. So remember to put your life savings into a Swiss bank account, or buy gold coins and stuff your mattress with them. Learn to think like rich people.
There’s also a lot of talk in the proposal about allowing work requirements.
The scariest thing about the MAHWA is all the language granting “The Secretary” options to add further rules and move limits around by fiat. In the 22 pages, “The Secretary” appears 33 times. What’s so scary is that “The Secretary” means Ben Carson.
There’s even a whole section titled “Secretary Established Rents.” It grants “The Secretary,” Ben Carson, the power to authorize public agencies to set up alternative rent structures that he, Ben Carson, thinks up. Or any that they, the public agencies, can think up, provided Ben Carson OKs them. The possibilities are only limited by Ben Carson’s mind. Eww.
There’s a requirement that the number of families served by these alternative schemes not substantially decrease, but that condition could easily be met by allowing housing agencies to house large numbers of gerbil families. The gerbils, of course, would have to spin wheels to establish their worthiness.
MAHWA also would grant “The Secretary” the power to specify what sort of work could satisfy any new work requirements. So after all those gerbils are housed, he could ruin it for them by ruling that wheel-spinning will not be acceptable work for meeting work requirements. Instead Ben Carson might require them to either flip burgers or manufacture license plates, kinds of work that gerbils almost never get.
Poor people will get something in return for paying higher rents and working to prove their worthiness. Namely, instead of having to prove their eligibility every year as they have been doing, they will only have to wade through that bureaucratic slop every three years.
I live in a subsidized building run by the Seattle Housing Authority, and our building has an SHA employee who, as far as I can tell, has no other work to do than to put residents like me through the recertification process required of us every year. There are 100 apartments, and it takes about one whole year’s worth of work for one person to shepherd all of us people in all those apartments through all that red tape.
With the MAHWA, that one SHA staff person will be able to get that part of their job done every year by the end of April.
They might spend the other eight months of every year spinning wheels if SHA allows it and King Ben of hud doesn’t object.
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time math professor who has experienced homelessness several times. He supplied the art for the first cover of Real Change in November of 1994 and has been involved with the organization ever since. This is his weekly column, Adventures in Irony, a dry verbal romp of the absurd.
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