The US housing subsidy to eligible low-income families (Ang pangtawid buhay sa America)

A POINT OF AWARENESS - Preciosa S. Soliven (The Philippine Star) - June 28, 2012 - 12:00am

LOS ANGELES COUNTY, USA — The ongoing controversy over President Benigno Aquino III’s strategy to help poor families in the Philippines via “pangtawid buhay” (poverty alleviation) initially proposed the staggering budget that ranges from P10 to P40 billion. This traditional dole out mentality has perpetually crippled our poor and illiterate countrymen. Recently, I read the news that House Bill 4484, “Magna Carta for the Poor,” has passed the second reading. Besides desiring to protect the rights of the underprivileged by enabling them to earn their basic needs instead of depending on subsidies, the Congressional authors should first indicate that there is an urgent need to restore the dignity and self-esteem of the disadvantaged Filipinos. This necessarily involves a comprehensive course in functional literacy and occupational training program.

Let’s observe how different counties of California, particularly Los Angeles County (not the city of Los Angeles), have raised the self-pride of their low income citizens in a just and fair way.


The US Federal government’s program for assisting very low income families

The Community Development Commission (CDC) Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles (HACoLA) is the second largest Housing Authority in the Southern California area. It receives funding from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide housing subsidy to eligible low-income families residing in the unincorporated area of Los Angeles County and 62 participating cities through Public Housing and voucher program.

What is Section 8? It is the federal government’s major program for assisting very low income families, the elderly and the disabled to afford decent, safe and sanitary housing in the private market. The participants are able to find their own housing, including single-family homes, townhouses and apartments.

Eligibility for a housing voucher is determined by the Public Housing Agency (PHA) based on the total annual gross income and family size. It is limited  to US citizens and specified categories of non-citizens who have eligible immigration status, who have limited income or no income at all. The family income can come from either employment, foster care, adoption assistance, welfare, child support, unemployment and social security benefits. A divorced mother who gets a monthly alimony of $1,000, while each of her 3 children gets $300 monthly would have a monthly income of $1,900. With a Los Angeles County housing choice voucher, she would be able to afford a rent of $1,360 for a two bedroom house in California paying only $600, which is 30 percent of her monthly income, while HUD would pay the balance. If the PHA determines that your family is eligible, the PHA will put your name on the waiting list. Once your name is reached on the waiting list, the PHA will contact you and issue to you a housing voucher.


How do housing vouchers function?

For the past six years my daughter Marinella has been working in the Housing Authority office of Los Angeles County. She handles 15,000 Section 8 landlords. To spare themselves of searching for tenants, various complaints as well as constant maintenance problems, landlords would rather let their houses be handled by the HACoLA. A very rich elderly Chinese lady, Helen, a widow of an American architect who owned a construction company, approached Marinella to help her office manage her six single family houses and ten multi-unit apartment houses all over LA County. The HUD office could guarantee her earnings because it would get the tenants, make them responsible to maintain the units, and subsidize 70 percent of the rent to allow the tenants to pay 30 percent minimum.

Payments are made by “direct deposits” and not by manual checks. Marinella checks all payments by computer and corresponds to queries of the landlords daily. She has enough PHA caseworkers to assist voucher applicants choose their housing units and answer their queries. Holding a very confidential position, Marinella is the only one privy to the personal assets of the landlords. Not even her boss has access to this. To qualify for the voucher program the tenant must meet the income limits as determined by the PHA. The tenant has the privilege of paying only 30 percent of his monthly income for the rent. Marinella says that LA County Housing Authority has used up all its allotted 21,000 vouchers, and thus applicants on the waiting list will continue to wait and can take 5, 10, 15 and even 20 years before they can be granted a voucher.

The housing voucher allows the tenant to choose the most suitable house fitted to the size of his family. Usually, a caseworker attends to each voucher holder helping determine a payment standard needed to rent a moderately priced unit and to calculate the amount of housing assistance a family will receive. A family’s housing needs change over time with changes in family size, job locations and for other reasons. The housing choice voucher program is designed to allow families to move without the loss of housing assistance.


A good place to live!

Having a good place to live is important. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development provides very detailed information for family applicants and landlords. A publication, “Tenant Talk,” comes out yearly. A complete kit of information on how to get the housing voucher is readily available. The Section 8 Certificate Program and Housing Voucher Program allow one to choose a house that must have basic items every apartment must have. Information detailed in the pamphlet “A Good Place to Live” states, “You may want a big kitchen or a lot of windows or a first floor apartment. Worn wallpaper or paint may bother you. Think of these things as you are looking for a home. Please take time to read A Good Place to Live.”

The requirements state that the house or apartment must have at least a living room, kitchen and bathroom. Generally there must be one living /sleeping room for every two family members. The living room must have a ceiling in good condition; without cracks or holes that allow drafts, severe bulging, large amounts of loose or falling surface material such as plasters, so with the walls and floor. Not acceptable are broken or frayed wiring. The kitchen must have an operable refrigerator and stove, while the bathroom needs to have a sink, and cold and hot water amenities. 

The building site must have at least one working smoke detector on each level of the unit. Fire exits should be provided. The neighborhood should not have nearby buildings that are falling down, unprotected cliffs, fire hazards or evidence of flooding. No large piles of trash and garbage inside or outside. There must be space to store garbage that is covered tightly so that rats and other animals cannot get into it.


The tenant, the landlord, and the housing agency

Once a PHA approves an eligible family’s housing unit, the family and the landlord sign a lease and at the same time, the landlord and the PHA sign a housing assistance payments contract that runs for the same term as the lease. This means that everyone — tenant, landlord and PHA — has obligations and responsibilities under the voucher program.

The family signs a lease with the landlord for at least one year. The tenant may be required to pay a security deposit to the landlord. The family is expected to comply with the lease and the program requirements, pay its share of rent on time, maintain the unit in good condition and notify the PHA of any changes in income or family composition.

The landlord is to provide decent, safe, and sanitary housing to a tenant at a reasonable rent. The dwelling unit must pass the program’s housing quality standards and be maintained up to those standards as long as the owner receives housing assistance payments.

The PHA administers the voucher program locally. It provides the family assistance to seek out suitable housing and the PHA enters into a contract with the landlord regarding housing assistance payments on behalf of the family. If the landlord fails to meet the owner’s obligations under the lease, the PHA has the right to terminate assistance payments. The PHA must reexamine the family’s income and composition and must inspect each unit at least annually to ensure that it meets minimum housing quality standards.


Philippines has a long way to go to equalize opportunities for the underprivileged

The National Housing Authority in the Philippines, SSS and the Pag-ibig Fund cannot keep up with our population growth to provide decent, safe and quality housing. But the majority of Filipinos need occupational skills to afford this privilege. The UN Country Report cites that 70 percent of Filipinos are illiterate and poor. Our hope is to revive the poor’s economic potential from early childhood to young adulthood by revolutionizing our school system and transforming our false sense of charity to believing that every Filipino is capable of helping himself/herself. This requires conditioning one to love work not in an empty classroom but in a well equipped environment with qualified teachers.

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