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Misconceptions abound about Housing Choice Voucher Program


People have a lot of misconceptions about the Housing Choice Voucher Program, or Section 8 as it is more commonly known, according to Kevin Bartko, associate director of the program for the Pittsburgh Housing Authority.

Addressing those in attendance at the Zone 3 Public Safety Council last week at the Banksville Park Recreation Center, Mr. Bartko explained that the program helps a great deal of elderly and disabled people in addition to lower income families.

He said that Section 8 has become more of a “temporary program” for many people. He has seen a trend recently for more employed families to be in the program than those on SSI or welfare. Mr. Bartko noted 75 percent of the families in the program have participated for five years or less.

The average family receiving housing vouchers earns $12,500 a year.

“Most of our participants, you wouldn't know they're in the program,” Mr. Bartko said. “Most of the participants, they don't want you to know they're in the program.”

The Pittsburgh Housing Authority, one of 3,300 housing authorities in the country, performs a basic criminal background check, going back three years to check on participants when they apply. They are one of only a few housing authorities that pay for the background check.

Mr. Bartko explained that the three year check was a “HUD” standard and that the Pittsburgh Housing Authority was looking to revise their own standards to a longer period of time.

Some things in the background check that raise red flags and will prevent an applicant from entering the program are arrests for violent or drug related crimes or a pattern of crime that would adversely effect the neighborhood. Sex offenders are barred for life from participating in the housing voucher program.

Things that impact the health and safety of the neighbors are also considered, such as becoming a nuisance or multiple 911 calls to a residence could be a reason to be terminated from the program.

“As much as you don't like bad people in your neighborhood, we don't like bad people in our program,” he said.

If a participant violates the rules they can be removed from the program. However, Mr. Bartko said that participants removed from the program are given due process and they are able to appeal the decision.

Some of those in attendance at the Zone 3 district wide meeting were concerned that “criminals on probation have been put into the program” in spite of the background checks.

According to the associate director of the program, it is possible for a participant to be on probation for a crime committed more than three years ago and still be eligible to participate in the program.

Mr. Bartko said Section 8 units are inspected initially and they visited annually or more often. The housing units must meet the Federal government's Housing Quality Standards in addition to the Housing Authority's own standards.

“We will not participate with landlords who don't maintain their properties,” he said.

In addition to inspecting the housing units, tenants' incomes are reviewed annually also. The annual review is to make sure the tenant is paying the correct amount of rent, about 30 percent of their income.

Questioned about how many people can live in a housing unit, Mr. Bartko said that generally they permit two family members per bedroom. He said that under certain circumstances, the living room may also be counted when determining occupancy for a unit.

When a Section 8 unit is reported for having excess people living in a unit, an inspector is sent out. However, Mr. Bartko said that Federal law mandates that the participant be given several days notice that the property will be inspected.

“Some [homes] you think are Section 8, aren't,” he said. “Not all the properties that people identify as Section 8, are Section 8.”

One common misconception is that once a property has a Section 8 tenant, it's always a Section 8 property. In contrast, the reality is that the voucher travels with the participant and the property is only considered in the program as long as a participant is living there.

Asked whose responsibility it was to screen the tenants before they rent an apartment or house, Mr. Bartko replied, “the landlord.”

“Landlords have the responsibility to be landlords,” he added. “They have to screen the tenants.”

The landlords also have to pay for repairs to their property after a Section 8 tenant moves out, the same as it would be with any other tenant. The voucher program doesn't pay for damage done by program participants. Mr. Bartko said that landlords should report the damage done by the tenants to the Housing Authority.

Damaging property, along with leaving before the end of a lease, could be cause for a participant to be terminated from the program.

According to Mr. Bartko, there are no more vouchers available. In mid 2006 there were approximately 6,700 vouchers in the program, now there are 6,102.

He said that demand for the

program has peaked and is now declining, along with the Federal subsidy that supports the program, and that it is expected to be down to 5,500 participating families by the end of the year.


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