Last Wednesday's discussion of a routine agenda item ended with Durham Housing Authority commissioners voting to delay opening the housing-choice voucher wait list for one month.
The DHA was set to vote on opening the wait list, which typically draws around four thousand applicants for Section 8 vouchers that are worth about $600 a month. But then commissioner Bo Glenn started pushing for a one-month delay so that the DHA could catch up to changing federal guidelines and begin telling applicants with arrest records that only those with recent convictions will be barred from public housing.
"Until you're proven guilty," said Glenn, "you're not guilty, and we shouldn't be using arrests to exclude people."
The impetus was a new HUD directive, issued April 4. It says that, unlike convictions, arrests shouldn't be used to deny Section 8 applications. Under the DHA's current policy, an arrest can be seen as evidence of disqualifying criminal behavior.
The new guidelines make clear that the feds are going in a different direction: "A housing provider with a policy or practice of excluding individuals because of one or more prior arrests [without a conviction] cannot satisfy its burden of showing that such policy or practice is necessary to achieve a substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest."
That's a sharp contrast to the "One Strike, You're Out" policies pushed by the Clinton administration in 1996 and adopted by Durham around the same time.
Glenn didn't stop there. "I think we need to look at the five-year limitation," he continued, referring to the DHA's policy of looking at an applicant's criminal record for the previous five years. Durham's "lookback period" increased from three years to five in 2012.
The federal government is now recommending more leniency in that area, too. Back in November, HUD issued a set of "best practices" for public housing authorities, noting approvingly that "one PHA has adopted a twelve-month lookback period for drug-related criminal activity and a twenty-four-month lookback period for violent and other criminal activity that threatens the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other residents."
"What people have recognized over the last twenty years with the war on drugs," Glenn said, "is that African-American men are getting caught up in criminal arrests and convictions that are really not indicative of their ability to live successfully in a community."
The feds are putting some money where their mouth is. On April 25, U.S. Attorney General (and former Durhamite) Loretta Lynch announced $1.7 million in grants, which would be split among eighteen public housing authorities and nonprofit partners—the DHA was not one of them—that had demonstrated a commitment to reintegrating young people after incarceration.
Glenn hopes Durham may one day be part of a similar initiative. The DHA could certainly use the money.
Though the authority's staff tries to assess all Section 8 applicants on a case-by-case basis, it's become increasingly difficult to do so. HUD's budget has been cut over the last several years, and those reductions have trickled down to local housing authorities.
"It makes it more difficult for us to manage the overall program," says DHA CEO Dallas Parks. "For example, when I came here in 2010, we had twenty-four staff positions in the housing-choice voucher program. Now we have sixteen."
Right now, 2,776 Section 8 vouchers are available in Durham. But only 2,443 voucher recipients have signed lease agreements. Some haven't found the right place to live. But 140 vouchers have not been issued because, as Glenn says, "we don't have the staffing to do the applications and the background checks."
The DHA gets most of its money from HUD, including about $16 million for Section 8 vouchers. Glenn says the DHA is talking to the city about a loan to increase staffing. City council member Steve Schewel expects the city manager to announce recommendations within a few weeks.
At last Wednesday's meeting, Parks initially pushed back against Glenn's request to delay the waiting list a month. Time was of the essence, he said. "We still have a timeline," said Parks, "because we have a number of vouchers that we want to release by the end of the year. And if we don't have people to issue the vouchers [to], because the wait list is not open, then that causes hardship."
Parks also worried that, in relaxing its standards, the DHA might not live up to its responsibility to provide safe housing.
"I look at a situation with Oxford Manor," he said, referring to the Danube Lane shootings that resulted in serious injuries on April 25. "We had three people shot—one of them was a thirteen-year-old girl—in a drive-by."
But Parks and Glenn agreed that the worst crime problems come from outsiders preying on Section 8 tenants, not the tenants themselves.
"People sometimes will come in, and they're not on the lease, and they'll just bully residents into letting them come into their units," said Parks. "They'll sell drugs out of that unit—these kinds of things."
Parks's initial misgivings about slowing down the voucher process were seemingly allayed by Glenn's motion to ask HUD to quickly sign off on a rule change to grant arrestees access to Section 8. That motion passed unanimously. The board agreed to delay voting on opening the wait list until its next meeting, at the end of May.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Open House"