Special Report: Public Housing Plus

Posted: Updated: Feb 12, 2016 12:00 AM

HARLINGEN - Families above the poverty level are living off of the public’s tax dollars. The Office of the Inspector General found thousands of people living in government housing are earning over the income limit.

Web Extra: See information on RGV housing authorities and read the OIG report

The OIG is a federal auditing organization that looks for fraud, waste or abuse of money. Last summer, the organization started investigating records at the Housing and Urban Development Department, also known as Section 8.

While the Inspector General was investigating, they found more than 25,000 families nationwide were making too much money to receive government housing. A family in New York had an income of nearly half-a-million dollars. In Los Angeles, a family made $204,000. And in Maine, a family made $212,000.

Taxpayers fund HUD housing. A deeper look revealed Texas was number three on the OIG’s list of states with over-income families living in public housing units. More than 1,000 families living in government housing make over the poverty level.

On Wednesdays, people are able to apply for housing assistance at the Harlingen Housing Authority. Victoria Munoz said she was forced to apply for assistance after a situation with her children's father.

“I never needed it,” she said. “(I) got told by a judge to move out with my three kids. I got to keep them out of harm’s way.”

The mother of three had to get out of a troubling relationship. Lately, she’s been living off of less than $1,000 a month. On paper, she’s eligible to move into a three-bedroom home with a playground, lawn service and security. There is just one problem. More than 500 other people are also looking for some kind of housing assistance in Harlingen.

“HUD did not encourage over-income families to find housing in the unassisted market,” an OIG report on Housing and Urban Development stated. “As a result, HUD did not assist as many low-income families as it could have.”

The Harlingen Housing Authority has 494 government housing units. Families who make over the income limit inhabit about 19 of those units.

“They pretty much really do need the assistance and live here continually,” said Hilda Benavides, the Harlingen Housing Authority director.

Benavides said housing authorities provide two types of assistance. They provide Section 8, which is a rent voucher program, and public housing, which are government-built and managed homes.

“We are helping people constantly,” Benavides said.

Section 8 and government housing are based off of income limits. Housing authorities use a chart to determine who qualifies.

For example, a family of four that makes less than $42,000 qualifies for housing. However, Section 8 is only temporary. Once that family makes more than $42,000 for more than six months, they are out of the program.

Government housing is different than Section 8. “We cannot ask the families to move out, because they are over income,” Hilda Benavides said.

Some may say HUD residents are milking the system. The housing authorities say they see it differently.

“I don’t think that any family earning such a high salary wants to live in public assistance,” said Joel Gonzalez, the Mission Housing Authority director. “It’s their incentive to move out completely."

Mission Housing Authority has 1,000 families waiting for assistance. Gonzalez said over-income families in government housing are success stories. In 2014, a family in one of his units made $19,000 over the income limit. That family has since move out.

“To have low-income families with more affluent families, it hopefully helps bring that family up,” Gonzalez said.

The housing authority’s theory is that if they leave the HUD housing residents that are over-income in the system, those residents will create an example for other families. However, the Office of the Inspector General found there is no actual data to support the housing authority’s theory.

Jaime Zarate, 83, is a retired repairman. When he was younger, he transcribed Morse code for the Mexican government. He said gallbladder surgery left him disabled.

Zarate has been in San Benito public housing for 16 years. Three years ago, his doctor helped him upgrade to a two-bedroom bachelor pad.

“The prescription said I was claustrophobic,” the 83-year-old said.

Zarate spends his days tinkering with broken appliances. When his Social Security check comes in, he spends $97 on rent. The rest of his money goes to food and visiting his wife in Brownsville.

“From what I experienced in my years in housing, people like to be taken care of, rather than doing it on their own,” said Tony Hasbargen with the San Benito Housing Authority.

In 2014, Hasbargen had a family making $28,000 over the poverty limit receiving benefits.

“You may have to lay someone off or cut services,” he said. “But if you have people over-income… it doesn't fix the problem, but it makes it less painful."

Funding is scarce for housing authorities. Hasbargen said he could be approved for a million-dollar budget, but the government may only grant him 80 percent of that. He said jobs could be on the line.

The landscapers, security guards and all other employees need to get paid. One way to make payroll is by keeping the over-income families.

“It has to be a mixed-income family for it to work,” Hilda Benavides said.

Over-income families generally pay higher rent, between $500 and $700. Every housing authority CHANNEL 5 NEWS spoke to said over-income families are essential to the system.

Housing authorities don’t have to evict over-income families, but a law passed in 2004 allows them to.

The Inspector General estimates HUD will spend $104.4 million to house over-income families over the next year.

“They can let them live there and get help, but at least help the other people,” Victoria Munoz said.

The Housing and Urban Development Department assists 1.1 million people. HUD argues the 25,000 over-income families make up just 2.6 percent of the resident population.

In the Valley, over-income levels are nowhere what they are in New York or California. However, all local housing offices agree there is some room for changes in the system.

As a result of the Inspector General’s report, the Housing and Urban Development Department announced they will consider making changes.

HUD is creating a new rule to reduce the number of families that significantly exceed the income limit for extended periods. The proposed rule is under review.

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