Public housing tenants may get rent reprieve next year; HRHA relationship with City Council ‘a work in progress’

HRHA chosen for potential participation in federal program designed to give public housing tenants increased incentive to earn better incomes. The agency is also hoping to improve its relationship with city council // file photo

By Eric Gorton, contributor

Public housing tenants in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County could have more incentive to gain or improve their employment, perhaps as soon as the middle of 2021, under a new program being planned by the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

The HRHA is one of 33 public housing authorities around the country selected this month by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to create a plan for implementing its Moving to Work demonstration program. If ultimately selected to be a MTW agency, HRHA would gain some flexibility to create and test innovative, locally-designed strategies to use federal dollars more efficiently.

Among those strategies, said Michael Wong, executive director of the HRHA, would be allowing tenants to keep more of the money they earn if they gain employment or earn raises at work, in an effort to help them become self-sufficient. Under current regulations, HRHA tenants are required to spend 30% of their income on rent. Any time a tenant’s income changes, they must report it to HRHA, which adjusts their rental payments accordingly. Thus, unemployed tenants who gain employment have to start paying rent and employed tenants who earn salary increases have to start paying more rent.

“If you earn more money, then you have to pay more rent,” Wong said, about the current arrangement. “Some individuals don’t see the benefit of earning more money if it all goes to rent.”

The Bristol Redevelopment and Housing Authority also was chosen by HUD to come up with a plan to implement the MTW program. The Fairfax County Housing and Redevelopment Authority joined the program in 2012 and is currently the only MTW agency in Virginia.

One policy change HRHA plans to make as part of its participation in the MTW demonstration program is to delay recertification of tenant income for up to three years. That will allow tenants to keep more of their income, giving them greater ability to pay off debt, increase credit scores and have better access to healthcare, education and improved housing – all of which, Wong said, are priorities of the housing authority.

“This program is a huge benefit for HRHA and for Harrisonburg,” HRHA Board of Commissioners member Scott Gallagher said in an email. “Our current system creates some disincentives for doing some very pro-social things, e.g. as a tenant’s income goes up, their housing voucher declines. This allows us to be innovative and mitigate some of those effects.”

HRHA applied to join the MTW program in January 2019, and was recently notified that it had been selected to begin creating a plan that will be evaluated by HUD.

“You have to meet a certain threshold,” Wong said. “You had to be a high-performing agency and meet some eligibility requirements” to have a chance at being selected.

Gallagher said the agency’s selection “shows that HRHA is one of the best-run housing programs in the country.”

John Hall, chairman of the HRHA Board of Commissioners, said it reflects HUD’s confidence in HRHA to do good things for its tenants.

“The reason that any authority is selected is because they have the skills and the background to be able to handle what Moving to Work allows and I know that Michael and the Harrisonburg Housing Authority are well-known and well-respected.”

HRHA, city council relationship ‘a work in progress’

As HRHA develops its MTW plan, it is also working on improving a rocky relationship with the Harrisonburg City Council. At its Sept. 8 meeting, the council heard from Hall about steps HRHA is taking to address tenant complaints about the agency’s properties.

Council member Chris Jones urged the HRHA board to take responsibility for “managing the executive director [Wong],” so that tenants’ complaints would be properly handled by authority staff, and don’t come straight to council.

Vice-mayor Sal Romero encouraged the authority to be more proactive in discovering tenant’s complaints, “so they feel like their concerns are being heard, and something will be done about it.”

Hall’s appearance before the council followed a discussion at a July meeting of the council during which several members publicly aired frustrations about what they characterized as Wong’s chronic unresponsiveness to tenant complaints.

“We keep hearing the same complaints … but now I think it’s a little bit too much,” said Mayor Deanna Reed, at the meeting.

In an interview last Friday, Wong said that HRHA takes tenant complaints seriously and has addressed many of the complaints renters voiced in 2019 about conditions at some housing authority properties.

“We thought they were put to rest,” he said, before they resurfaced at the July council meeting during a call-in campaign organized by the Richmond chapter of the National Action Network.

Wong said the agency’s ability to offer its services “directly relates to our partnership with the city. We try to be proactive. We try to be good neighbors,” he said, characterizing HRHA’s relationship with city council as a “work in progress.”

HRHA Commissioner Gallagher said he feels Hall’s report to council at the Sept. 8 meeting “fully addressed concerns as it included inspection reports from city, not HRHA, inspectors.”

“HRHA has been, and I hope still is, a great partner and part of the city,” he added. “We welcome citizens bringing us concerns or ideas, we have open public comment every meeting.”

Hall said HRHA has offered times for tenants to call in with concerns and he plans to personally answer the phone 45 minutes before the Oct. 21 board meeting, which will begin at 4 p.m. He said he also made his email address available to the Northeast Neighborhood Association, which has expressed concerns in the past about how some HRHA properties look.

“We want to be available to hear what they have to say and start to take some action,” Hall said.

He added that the HRHA Board has also proposed a liaison subcommittee to improve communication between it and city council.

“We need to find out more about why there are concerns from City Council,” Hall said.

Both he and Gallagher praised Wong’s leadership of HRHA.

 “I think he does an incredibly good job,” said Hall, adding that Wong’s reputation with HUD led to the opportunity to become an MTW agency.

Gallagher called Wong “an exceptionally talented administrator.”

“His public housing expertise is considerable and as a long-term Harrisonburg native, his love of this area and city is remarkable,” he said. “We are lucky to have him as the executive director of HRHA.”

Next steps

HRHA has until Dec. 4 to create and submit its plan for becoming an MTW agency to HUD for review. Wong said the review process could take a few months.

In creating the plan, HRHA must provide opportunity for tenant and public comment. While technical difficulties foiled the first attempt to take comments from tenants by phone on Sept. 16, Wong said, a meeting for tenant information and comments is scheduled for 4pm today, Wed., Sept. 30.

Tenants wishing to comment should call 1-800–719–6100 and enter the meeting code, 127 2645, when prompted. A public comment meeting on the draft plan is scheduled for 4pm on Oct. 21, during the Board of Commissioners meeting at the HRHA administrative office at 286 Kelley Street. That meeting will be available via Zoom.

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