by Jordan Green
Working residents of public housing in Winston-Salem get shown the welcome mat and receive incentives from the housing authority, but it’s too early to say whether the program is moving people from dependency to self-sufficiency.
Marquita McIlwain, a 28-year-old dietary associate who commutes to Salisbury to work in a hospital, put in her application to the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem in January 2014, and was prepared to accept whatever was offered. She and her two sons, 8-year-old Hakeem and 2-year-old Hassan, had been staying with her mother and it was time to get her own place.
“They sent me a letter and said it’s going to be three to five years,” McIlwain recalled. “Then, in May, they said, ‘Your name is at the top of the application list and we want you to come in and complete the paperwork.’”
By the end of June, she had moved in.
She’s not crazy about the layout — her two-bedroom apartment is practically vertical, covering three stories, not counting the stairwell from the first floor — but she likes the community.
“I like the fact that everybody is working,” McIlwain said. “You don’t have no drama. I know this is the east side. Everybody is cool. The kids play together. I don’t have to worry about walking outside and something happening.”
Wait times for one-bedroom apartments, the unit in the highest demand can be as long as three years, said Karen Durell, the agency’s chief operating officer. For Section 8, a voucher that can be used to subsidize rent from any private landlord who agrees to participate, housing authority CEO said about 7,000 people are on the waiting list and it might be five years before they get in.
“There is economic stagnation of non-elderly, non-disabled families living in subsidized housing resulting in unnecessary lengthy stays, generational poverty, increased demands for governmental subsidies and lengthening waiting lists,” Larry Woods, CEO of the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem, testified before the US House Ways and Means Committee in 2013. “Current policies, rules and regulations provide for unconditional, open-ended housing subsidies that discourage self-sufficiency and nurture generational poverty.”
A 2011 notice from the US Housing & Urban Development allowed the housing authority in Winston-Salem to give preference to working families in some of its communities.
“I don’t want to take credit for it,”Woods said, “but we were hounding HUD and Congress about why shouldn’t there be a place for motivated families to live in one community.”
As the federal government reduces funding for public housing, the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem, or HAWS, has moved aggressively to bring online what agency leaders call “step-up housing” for residents who agreed to work at least 30 hours a week. These motivated families are rewarded with new or renovated units with extra amenities (new washers and dryers at one community, and new microwaves at another), and in some cases their children receive free tutoring. Woods and his executive team envision the communities of working residents as a step towards self-sufficiency, with homeownership as a long-term goal.
As metropolitan areas across North Carolina have experienced a marked increase in poverty, Woods said demand for public housing has risen commensurately, but the agency is hamstrung from helping new clients because many of those who are already receiving assistance have no incentive to move towards self-sufficiency.
A change in the culture of public housing took place in the mid-1980s, when the federal government lifted the requirement, Woods said.
Working families are currently receiving preference in about a sixth of the units owned by the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem, although federal regulations prohibit the agency from excluding elderly or disabled residents who are exempt from the work requirements.
The first units with a work requirement came online when the new urbanism-inspired townhome community, the Oaks at Tenth, opened in East Winston in June 2014. Another 50 units were added in November with the renovation of the Stoney Glen Apartments, originally built in 1982, in a semi-rural area in the city’s southeast corner. Townview Apartments, a community of similar vintage that was renovated in 2011 and 2012, will convert to step-up housing on May 15, and the new Camden Station townhomes will add 30 units of housing with a work requirement when it opens, likely in September.
While some may wait for years to get into public housing, those who are already employed have found that, as new units with a work preference come online, the agency gives their applications preference.
Like Marquita McIlwain, 39-year-old Debra Stevenson was accepted into a work preference community three months after submitting her application. Stevenson works two part-time jobs — at FedEx and at a clothing store. Similar to McIlwain, Stevenson had been staying with her mother, who had been in poor health, but said she decided “it was time to leave the nest, finally.”
Stevenson applied for an apartment at Stoney Glen in November 2013 and received an approval letter the following February, but had to wait until the next November, when renovations were complete, to move in.
Durrell said that the applications of people already living in public housing were given higher preference than those who were applying for the first time. “We didn’t have enough people who wanted to move out of a non-working [public housing] community to a working community,” she added, “and we had to take people from outside of public housing.”
Durrell said the housing authority has a caseworker counseling traditional public housing residents to prepare them for transition.
“It’s a little scary,” she said. “Because of the work requirement development and the procedures at work, if they lose their job for any reason, they have only 60 days to obtain other employment, although they can request a 60-day extension. I think that’s sort of scary to people that if their job doesn’t work out they can be required to move back to another public housing community.”
The duplex-style ranch apartment at Stoney Glen, with only one adjacent neighbor, suits Stevenson and her 13-year-old daughter.
“You’re not hearing a lot of banging on the walls,” she said. “I have very good neighbors.”
The adult residents interact, and the children play together, Stevenson said, adding that she sees the teenagers watching out for the younger children in the playground.
“I did like the fact that you had to work,” she said. “It wasn’t just a place to live and not do anything to get government money. It helps to have the support. The economy is rebuilding, but it’s still hard to find a full-time job.”
Woods is an impatient reformer.
“It hasn’t produced the full effect just yet,” he said of the work program. “We are confident that with a few more wins on the table, we will have a model with national implications to reduce the need for subsidized housing.”
One frustration is that HUD has so far declined to grant HAWS “moving to work” designation, which would allow the agency to make it mandatory for non-elderly, non-disabled residents to work. Per federal regulations, the housing authority is currently required to provide housing regardless of whether residents remain employed or not. Under the current voluntary model, residents in “step-up” housing who become unemployed and are unable to find work within 120 days will be allowed to move to one of the agency’s traditional public housing communities like Cleveland Avenue Homes or Piedmont Park.
“You may be surprised that the elderly and disabled pay rent from the funds they receive each month, while the rules and regulations make it possible for the non-elderly, non-disabled, who choose not to work, to not pay rent,” Woods said in his testimony before Congress in 2013. “Sadly, in the housing arena, often what appears to be a progressive idea in theory, results in abuse of the system, exorbitant administrative burdens and unnecessary expenditures that reduce our ability to assist low-income families. Without changes, step-up housing will quickly revert back to traditional low-income public developments with high rates of unemployed tenants and another place that encourages generational poverty.”
It’s too early to tell whether “step-up” housing has been successful in moving Winston-Salem public-housing residents to self-sufficiency. Martha Dorsey, the agency’s chief financial officer, said two to five years is a standard length of time for a public-housing resident to move from one point to another.
As a gauge of the program’s performance, Woods noted that all units at the Oaks at Tenth and Stoney Glen are full, with applicants waiting to get in. He added, “We haven’t had anyone quit or lose their jobs. We’ve had no evictions.”
Both Stevenson and McIlwain said they aspire to homeownership, however elusive it might seem in their current circumstances. In the meantime, Stevenson said she’s talked to the property manager at Stoney Glen about starting a community garden as a way to instill pride.
Stevenson said part of her motivation for signing on with the program was to show her 13-year-old daughter “that [while] everything is not picture perfect, there are organizations out there that are willing to help you, but you have to want to do better.”
McIlwain said eventually she wants to buy land in South Carolina, where she has roots. In the meantime, working 37 hours a week in Salisbury she’s unable to save much money. Her background in retail and food service doesn’t allow much opportunity for advancement. She took the Medical Unit Secretary course at Forsyth Tech, and is considering going back to school this year so she can earn the certification to become eligible to work a front-desk job, which pays significantly more.
“What I really want to do is teaching,” McIlwain added, “but with so many job cuts it’s not stable…. I want to know that I’m going to be able to retire from there.”
As an additional incentive to residents who work, the housing authority arranged for students in Winston-Salem State University’s school of education to come to the Oaks at Tenth to tutor once a week. Eight-year-old Hakeem is one of the beneficiaries.
“He never was bad at reading,” his mother said. “He liked picking up books, but as far as him understanding what he was reading that was an issue. I’ll ask him, ‘What’s going on?’ Now, when we’re reading, he’ll let me know what’s going on.”
A ceremony to celebrate the youngsters’ graduation from the tutoring program took place at the Anderson Center on the campus of Winston-Salem State University on April 23.
“It was really nice,” Marquita McIlwain said. “A lot of tears.”