An Unconscionable Choice

JSblogThere was no way around it.  To obey the law, I had to force my tenant to make an unconscionable choice: drop out of college or lose your home.

This was not the sort of thing I envisioned I would be doing as a part of my work running a business that provides affordable housing to the poor. But three years ago, compelled by federal housing rules aimed at preventing fraud, I had to tell my 22-year-old tenant that he could not continue to attend Ferrum College in southwestern Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains and maintain an apartment in Alexandria, Virginia that was subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The young man faced this housing dilemma after his mother, who was renting the subsidized apartment from me, died of cancer—leaving behind her 22-year-old son and 8-year-old  granddaughter. He decided to return to the Alexandria apartment.

Under HUD regulations, college students younger than 24, who are not married or veterans, and do not have dependent children, are not eligible for subsidized housing.

The perverse impact of this rule is that it rewards poor young people who have children and penalizes young people who pursue higher education if they want to stay in Section 8 housing subsidized by HUD.

Last month I recalled my unease about backing the college student into a corner when I attended a meeting the National Association of Hispanic Journalists arranged with  Julián Castro, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Castro said he was not familiar with the rule, when I recounted my tenant’s story, but appeared concerned and said he would have his staff review it.

Ironically, it was the rich, not the poor, who initially prompted HUD to double down on limiting federal housing subsidies to college students. The restrictive housing policy was adopted in 2006 as a result of several incidents of fraud involving well-to-do college students living in subsidized HUD housing.

One notable case was in 2004 in Iowa, where Brian Ferentz, the son of millionaire University of Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz, was discovered to be living in HUD subsidized housing, despite his father’s wealth and a $700-a-month university stipend for housing, according to the Des Moines Register newspaper.

But in the bid to free up housing for truly needy people, the federal government closed off opportunities for poor people, like my tenant, who pursued higher education in search of a better life.

“This is a categorically bad rule,” said Jim Schaafsma, a housing law attorney for the Michigan Poverty Law Program. “The rule was aimed at preventing dependent children of wealthy families from getting HUD assistance. But it can be too rigid.”

Schaafsma told me that because Congress gave HUD only 30 days to craft rules to crack down on the student housing abuse, the agency didn’t have time to adequately research the problem or solicit and weigh public comments that might have resulted in a better solution.

“The result is that we have a rule that is clearly and indisputably unfair.” Schaafsma said.

Luckily, my 22-year-old tenant’s college administrators were more understanding than HUD. The school allowed my tenant to study on his own in Alexandria and take final exams online, since he was only a semester away from completing his college degree. Since graduation, he has been working part time for Fairfax County.

In the meanwhile, HUD should revise the college student housing rule to make it means-tested or allow landlords to apply for waivers on a case-by-case basis.

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2 comments on “An Unconscionable Choice
  1. James K says:

    Powerful post. This is so sad…Wish the young man well.

  2. V. Nenaji Jackson, Ph.D. says:

    Hi Jube, WOW! I don’t know how I overlooked this, but this article is perfect for use in my Black Family course dealing with public policy impacts on the Black family. I believe certain things happen to the right people in order for change to occur. Your angst with this matter made a difference for at least one student. I am looking forward to other developments. We know change occurs slowly in order to stabilize the system but I hope HUD acts swiftly this time. I am always happy to see you utilize your incredible journalistic skills to evoke beneficial social outcomes and this is one of those examples of exactly why.

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