Housing authority moving forward on plan for voucher flexibility; Mayor urges Halloween safety

By Bridget Manley, publisher

Harrisonburg’s housing authority is making progress with the draft of its plan to be part of a federal program that will allow for more flexibility in using federal dollars and more incentives to low-income people in hopes of putting them on a path to “self-sufficiency,” the authority’s leader told the city council Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development selected Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority in August as one of 33 local agencies across the country that the made the first cut to apply to be part of the Move to Work Program. Those agencies must propose a plan by Dec. 4 for HUD to review. 

Michael Wong, executive director of the authority, told the city council on Tuesday that the program could allow more flexibility use of federal dollars to provide services like education and job training to help low income residents afford housing. At the same time, he said, it could help address Harrisonburg’s lack of affordable housing — especially one-bedroom apartments — and would ensure more residents have steady incomes to allay fears of landlords who might be reluctant to rent to underemployed people. 

Wong also said the goals of being accepted into the program would be to incentivize employment and improve access to community resources, support services and adequate housing — while, at the same time, making the agency more efficient.  

As Wong told The Citizen last month, the current system provides vouchers to people in need of affordable housing, but as tenants earn more money, their share of the rent increases, which can discourage employment. 

The program allows public housing authorities like HRHA exemptions from many existing public housing requirements and voucher rules, and lets each authority gain more flexibility in how they combine and spend their federal funding. HUD says this allows for each public housing authority to innovate their programs uniquely, identifying challenges specific to each authority and community.

Wong said his team had been connecting with those who have received vouchers and asking them to fill out vouchers with their opinions and concerns. 

Mayor Deanna Reed questioned if those surveys were given out in multiple languages, and Wong confirmed the staff had provided the online survey in multiple languages. 

VIce-Mayor Sal Romero asked about possible challenges with the new plan and wondered if Wong and his staff had any training in how to implement the new plan. Wong said because they spent the majority of the beginning of the year putting together their plan and then the pandemic hit, they still are working on how they will implement procedures, training and the putting the technology in place.

More money needed for the Children’s Services Act

Harrisonburg Deputy City Manager Ande Banks updated council about the need to consider a supplemental appropriation of $188,337.56 for the Children’s Services Act. It would be part of a combined effort between Harrisonburg City and Rockingham County to pool funds and receive state money to provide critical local services for children and families in crisis. 

The law, enacted in Virginia in 1992, uses the pooled funding on counseling services, drug assistance, foster care and other emergency needs for children. 

Banks reported that last year, there was a greater need in the city and county than in previous years.

In response to a question from Romero, Banks also confirmed that the city hadn’t had to allocate additional funding to the program for years. 

“This is an extremely difficult thing to budget for, and traditionally we have simply allocated the same amount year after year, and luckily, that amount has covered the cost of the need of services,” Banks said. “This past year, as you can imagine, we can’t control the number of children and families coming into care and seeking services…unfortunately last year, the budgeted amount just wasn’t enough.” 

As the longest serving councilman, Richard Baugh echoed Banks, saying council hadn’t had to reallocate funding for programs like the Children’s Service Act for more than a decade. 

“We haven’t had a whole lot of this since…the Great Recession, we had a bunch of it,” Baugh said. “These were programs that we are required to provide the services, and we are required to provide the services to whoever shows up.”

Halloween

During council comments, Mayor Deanna Reed addressed Halloween in the city and the safety precautions she hopes citizens take to stay safe and healthy during their Saturday night fun.

The city has never had an official trick-or-treat night but usually offer safety tips and guidance on trick or treating.

Mayor Reed asked all trick-or-treaters to wear their face masks along with or under their costumes, practice social distancing and check the internet for fun and socially distant ways to keep the neighborhood kids entertained. 

“Make it fun. There are a lot of different ideas out there, you know, have a little table set up with the candy, the kids can just reach in and get the candy in the baggies, and everybody is doing something different,” she said. “But we want to make sure that we stay safe and healthy throughout the holidays season.” 


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