WAFF 48 Investigates: Public housing and income level - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

WAFF 48 Investigates: Public housing and income level

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HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) -

A review of the income levels of residents of public housing provided by the Huntsville Housing Authority reveals some tenants making income that reaches or exceeds even the average incomes for the state of Alabama.

Most Huntsville Housing tenants are like Gwendolyn McDay, who relies on Social Security as she looks for a job, possibly a secretarial position, as she celebrates her public housing unit on Glacier Street in Huntsville.  "It was a blessed day.  I shouted when they told me that I had received a home on Glacier," she said.  McDay hoped for opportunities in Huntsville, near where she has relatives in the military and still fills out every application she can find. 

" I was in desperate need of a home, God answered my prayer  and when he answered my prayer  Housing Authority called me."  

A listing of the 1700 tenants (PDF) in Huntsville public housing tells of many similar stories, families with no income, or very low income, in clear need of help. But figures for households provided by the Huntsville Housing Authority also reveal tenants whose salaries range much higher: individuals with incomes over $25,000, $28,000 and $30,000, couples with income over $33,000, a family of 3 making almost $44,000 and one family of four with a combined annual income of $59,628, still living in Huntsville Public Housing.

"That much money, I think they should look for somewhere else to live," said Huntsville Housing tenant Katrina Steward, who moved into public housing after she lost her job, and her home.    Living on disability Social Security payments, Steward is nonetheless trying to move out of public housing, possibly with the help of Habitat for Humanity.  Steward has high hopes her adult son will help the family pay its way.  She was also startled to find out how much some of her neighbors make.

"This is for someone who needs a good place to live, who can't afford anything higher, and a safe place to live.   And I think that is a good thing. Now if someone's making that $40,000 like you're talking about, I think they need to go on and do something bigger and better with their lives.  So I think they need to go on too."

The Huntsville Housing Authority says the rules for who's allowed to move into public housing anywhere are set at the federal level with the U.S. department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, and that, under federal regulations, there's no mechanism for making families move out, even as their incomes go up.  

"That's more of a HUD issue," said Huntsville Housing Authority representative Lindsay Pollard.  "We take our instructions and code and federal regulations from them and so basically that would be, I think, a higher up issue." 

HUD rules specify a "Low income limit, set at 80% of the area median income," even in an area like metro Huntsville, where average incomes are higher than those elsewhere in the state.

"For this area, Madison County probably has the highest income.," explained Pollard. "So it's probably anywhere, for a family of five let's say, probably 60,000 or so."   

"That don't sound right," contested Gwendolyn McDay, who remembered having to sit on a waiting list before she could get her home. Pollard said there are currently 545 families on the waiting list for openings in Huntsville Public Housing.

"They will have to leave," said McDay, "if they're making more money.  If they're making more money they're going to leave. There are other people on the waiting list that need a home." 

"That's not an outstanding number at all," insisted Pollard, calling the family of four making over $59,000 not a problem but a success story. "59,000 comes within the area of median income for that family…   This is someone who should be in public housing," she said, pointing out that the family has seen a turnaround as a military veteran member of the family returned home and started adding to his relatives' income.

"This family was making maybe $24,000 last year.  They have a son that came home from the service and was able to contribute to that income and they're looking at moving up and out very soon, because they're trying."  

As for when such a family might be required to move out after hitting certain income milestones, Pollard said "I think that's a decision that they [HUD] would have to make.  That's a bigger decision than I'm able to state."

Federal level action may indeed be forthcoming.  The office of Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks said that the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been receiving numerous questions about this issue as similar income numbers have come to light in other cities.  Brooks does not serve on that committee but his office reports that the committee is considering directives to address the issues.   According to Brooks' office, committee members are putting some of those directives together and they should be going to HUD sometime this coming spring.

Powell said the Huntsville Housing Authority's mission remains one of moving its tenants out, one family at a time. The $59,628 veteran family being a prime example. "Oh, I think they'll be out.  I think they'll be up and out very soon.  That's their goal.  And that's our goal as well."

Note: Before this report aired at 10 p.m. on Jan. 30, the Huntsville Housing Authority called a meeting to specifically address the report after receiving phone calls from residents and board members. At the time, the Housing Authority's CEO had not seen the report in full and was asked what, if anything, was factually incorrect with the promotion for the story. Michael O. Lundy replied, "I understand there may be a couple different versions, but the version that I saw spoke about the Huntsville Housing Authority having residents whose household income is greater than many Alabamians. Now, factually that could be true. That's probably true." He went on to say while not factually wrong, he believes the numbers are out of context. Authority leaders told WAFF at the time of the meeting they based their opinion solely on the promotion for this story and had not yet seen the report in full.

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