Housing Authorities Reel as HUD Singles Out Undocumented Immigrants

By: - May 23, 2019 12:00 am

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson testifies at a House Committee on Financial Services oversight hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. He’s proposed a rule banning certain immigrants from receiving public housing assistance or Section 8 vouchers. Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press

Read more Stateline coverage on affordable housing.

WASHINGTON — Public housing authorities say they were blindsided by a proposed federal rule banning many immigrants from receiving housing assistance — and, they said, they will fight to keep it from being implemented, even if that means ending up in court.

“It was a real surprise,” said Timothy Kaiser, executive director of the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association, which represents public housing agencies around the country.

“There’s no way to know what comes of this next,” said Rebecca Kagan, deputy director of the New York City Federal Affairs Office, which serves as a liaison between New York City and the federal government. “There’s still a lot of fight left to go.”

But in a country with 4.2 million families waiting for public housing or Section 8 housing vouchers, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson told lawmakers this week that it makes no sense to keep sheltering residents living in the United States illegally.

Carson defended HUD’s proposed rule to evict from public housing those tenants who aren’t U.S. citizens or immigrants with green cards, refugees or asylum-seekers. The rule would require residents under age 62 to verify their immigration status and their public housing or housing voucher eligibility.

“It seems only logical that tax-paying American citizens come first,” Carson said at the House Committee on Financial Services. He likened the proposed rule to adults on an airplane putting on their own oxygen masks before helping children. “It’s not that we’re cruel, mean-hearted. It’s that we are logical, commonsense. You take care of your own first.”

The effect, though, could be to oust roughly 55,000 American-born children, because many receive partial subsidies to live in public housing with parents or grandparents who might not have their papers, according to a National Housing Law Project analysis of HUD data.

Affordable housing, child welfare and immigrant advocates have assailed the proposal. They argue the rule is unnecessary because by law, many immigrants, including undocumented people, already are ineligible to receive housing subsidies. But the rule would ban every member of a household from receiving a subsidy even if just one family member is ineligible, including those over 62.

“We are really concerned that children will become the biggest losers as a result of this rule,” said Cara Baldari, vice president of family economics, housing and homelessness for First Focus, a bipartisan children’s advocacy nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

“Children in this country are already under threat,” Baldari said. “And this rule adds to the threat that children are facing.”

But those who favor limited immigration echo Carson’s assertion that the rule is a commonsense approach to the affordable housing crisis.

“Because public housing is in short supply, it’s imperative that the government makes sure that people who shouldn’t be in the country to begin with aren’t preventing Americans’ or legal immigrants’ access to public housing,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The fight is important to state policy because while the federal government foots the bill, public housing is administered at the state and local level by public housing authorities.

“This is not a small issue,” said Monique King-Viehland, executive director of the Los Angeles County Development Authority. “This is a large issue that has significant implications for a state like California that is focusing on grappling with homelessness and an affordability crisis.”

“This could set us back on the two years we’ve been working to address our homeless crisis,” King-Viehland said.

Kaiser of the directors association pointed out that public housing authorities around the country already are grappling with deteriorating housing stock and shrinking budgets. The rule change would increase costs to agencies, he said. And the rule would put public housing agencies “between a rock and a hard place,” because they would be forced to comply with the federal regulations — which could mean evicting struggling families, and then facing the ire of judges loathe to put families out on the street.

In the past, housing authorities have had flexibility to meet the needs of their tenants, said Michael Gerber, president and CEO of the Housing Authority of the City of Austin.

In some families, he said, the mother and her children are either documented or American citizens, but the grandmother living with them is undocumented. The grandmother doesn’t get the housing subsidy. But the mom is unstable, and the grandmother is the glue holding the family together.

“It’s cruel to evict Grandma,” Gerber said.

House Democrats have pressured Carson to drop the proposal. At the Tuesday hearing before the House Committee on Financial Services, Carson sparred with Democrats who peppered him with often combative questions.

He faced particular ire from lawmakers representing states with the largest immigrant populations — California, New York and Texas — who demanded to know his plans for American-born children who would be displaced under the rule. One lawmaker asked whether U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would be involved.

The rule, said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a Democrat from New York, “is among the most damaging proposals I’ve ever seen in public housing and quite frankly, I find it despicable.

“Is there a plan to have ICE put 55,000 more children on the border in cages?” she asked. “Not in my district. Not on my watch.”

Federal law already bans some immigrants, including undocumented residents, from receiving public housing assistance. But the Trump administration says it wants to close the loophole that allows residents to declare themselves “ineligible” for the benefit, not have their immigration status checked and still live in public housing or subsidized Section 8 housing with relatives who do qualify.

In those cases, public housing authorities now pro-rate rent subsidies for mixed-status families, in which some family members are citizens and others are not.

But Tuesday, Carson questioned the efficacy of pro-rating rent. “How do you pro-rate a roof over someone’s head?”

The National Housing Law Project analysis estimates the proposed rule would displace roughly 55,000 American-born children living in 25,000 families that HUD calls “mixed-status.” If their parents aren’t eligible to live in public housing, HUD said it expects “fear of the family being separated would lead to prompt evacuation by most mixed households.”

Most public housing families with mixed immigration status usually consist of three family members who are eligible for assistance and one who is not, according to HUD.

HUD estimates the rule would cost another million to million a year. The costs, HUD officials say, would come in paying higher subsidies to replacement families whose members all qualify for housing assistance and on average have lower incomes.

Most likely, the analysis found, “HUD would have to reduce the quantity and quality of assisted housing in response to higher costs.” That would mean fewer housing vouchers, less money for maintenance and further deterioration of already-crumbling public housing stock.

“At a time when public housing resources are needed across the country, when there are huge capital deficits, the idea that you would uphold the rule that your own analysis says would shrink the resource of public and affordable housing in this country is perplexing,” said Matthew McNally, director of the New York City Federal Affairs Office .

Households with ineligible immigrants who can’t find housing may get a temporary deferral of up to 18 months, Carson said at the hearing.

In proposing the rule, Carson said he was both trying to comply with federal law and reduce the long lists of families waiting for public housing. According to HUD, only 1 in 4 families who qualify for housing assistance actually receive it. Some 2.6 million households are waiting for housing choice vouchers, while another 1.6 million households are waiting for public housing, according to a HUD survey.

Cities, counties and states have 60 days to comment on the proposed rule, which was issued May 10.

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Teresa Wiltz

Teresa Wiltz covers welfare, housing and social services for Stateline. Previously, she worked for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.