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Housing Authority Aims to Move Tenants ‘Into Market.’

Not unlike other federal policies, the concept of RAD conversion was crafted in bills decipherable only by the initiated, and framed for the public as automatic happy outcomes. Bell and COO David Nash were kind enough to block out a chunk of time in their busy schedules to provide some middle ground.

For starters, Nash explained federal revenue streams for Section 8 (housing vouchers) are more likely to be supported by Congress than those for Section 9 (public housing). Getting onboard with RAD will allow the housing authority to enter into a “long-term” contract that locks funding at 2012 levels, subject to adjustment for inflation. Nash expects HACA’s funding would return to 2012 levels the first year after converting to Section 8. Last year, HACA lost about $1 million from its HUD subsidy. It dealt with the blow by eliminating 22 of its 112 positions and deferring maintenance.

Nine of HACA’s ten housing developments would convert to Section 8. The housing authority is considering overhauling Lee Walker Heights to create a mixed-income development.

Although the move makes business sense, it has had its share of misconceptions. It conjures images of private investors buying up units to landlord. And if that can of worms were the case, landlords would only have to be open to taking vouchers. But Bell and Nash assure public housing is not going to be transformed into condominiums. Bell and Nash will remain in charge, the board will continue to operate, and, “Resident Council and Resident Associations will continue to be recognized.”

Nash further said no extra level of bureaucracy was in the works. Management entities have become a popular tool for working around legislative limitations on government. Contradicting what has been published in another news outlet, Nash stated, “We’re not creating a management entity, and it will be internal if we do.”

Another hot button for residents has concerned new self-sufficiency requirements. The RAD conversion program requires local authorities to impose their own self-sufficiency requirements. In other words, HUD doesn’t care so much what the rules are as long as they exist. The rules are supposed to guide tenants toward “employment that will lead to economic independence and self-sufficiency.” Nash suggested the requirements might include collaborations with groups like Green Opportunities to help those who are “locked out of the job market.”

Nash and Bell indicated HACA has not yet fleshed out its requirements, as they would not go into effect for perhaps another year. In fact, current residents would be grandfathered-in, or exempt from the new requirements. Nash regrets that last point was not conveyed strongly enough to residents.

What upset residents was a requirement that children living in public housing stay in school, or at least work on their GED. Graduating from high school is, after all, strongly and causatively correlated with graduating from poverty. Some parents, however, were concerned that they could not control their kids. Once a child is sixteen, the state allows them to drop out regardless of what the parent thinks or wants.

Living up to their word, that they would seriously consider residents’ input, the housing authority revised the requirement. It now allows parents and their children to remain in Asheville public housing as long as the parent makes a reasonable effort to keep the child in school. It further says that any child who drops out while living in public housing under these conditions will have to be pursuing their education in order to get their own HACA apartment.

For awhile, Just Economics, a local group fighting for living wages and similar issues, and Children First/Communities in Schools were working to organize resistance to the RAD conversion. They wanted to postpone the conversion until a residents’ bill of rights could be adopted. They also had apprehensions that the conversion would thwart their plans to transform developments into co-ops.

Bell and Nash insisted residents would not see much of a change at all. Only those paying the most and the least on the sliding scale would be affected. “95 percent of tenants will continue to pay 30 percent of their income adjusted for things like childcare,” explained Nash. Converting to RAD would lift the high-rent cap, but Nash said the cap would be raised whether or not the housing authority made the change. Furthermore, the rent hikes are going to be phased in over a three year period.

Other advantages to converting include a streamlining of administrative paperwork. It will also make it easier for the housing authority to keep up its properties. For example, HACA would be able to maintain a fund balance for capital projects. Now, when major household appliances wear down or roofs start leaking, HACA as landlord could be up a creek without a paddle.

Another perk is the conversion would allow HACA to use its properties as collateral for taking out loans for major capital improvements. Nash said there are currently no plans to go into debt, but it is conceivable that an investment in energy-efficient technology would pay back a major loan in short order.

Nash explained the use of the word “sustainable” to describe the switch. HACA is trying to become less dependent on federal funding. It wants to work with residents to “increase their earning potential and their ability to pay rent, so they can move up and out, and into the market.”

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