THA offers a broader vision of subsidized housing

Housing authorities rarely make headlines. When they do, it’s rarely in a good way. The Tacoma Housing Authority is proving itself the exception.

In recent years, the THA has been reinventing subsidized housing - radically reinventing it, compared with the standard entitlement model.

Federally funded housing authorities have traditionally passed out subsidies like the old welfare system, which had the perverse effect of subsidizing dependency among adults capable of working.

Starting with the welfare reforms of 1996, most heads of families were given a lifetime maximum of five years on public assistance. While on welfare, they were expected to actively seek work or train for jobs.

In contrast, the strings normally attached to federal housing funds have required local housing authorities to increase a family’s subsidies if its income goes down and cut if its income went up. As long as the household fits the formula, the subsidies don’t stop.

But housing authorities have a problem that federal welfare doesn’t: There is never enough money to help every family that can’t afford a decent place to live. The THA has a long line of applicants who commonly wait four or five years for housing assistance.

As THA Executive Director Michael Mirra has said: “We serve a small group of lucky families who potentially have lifetime subsidies. And there’s this hideous waiting list of many thousands more who receive nothing.”

Under the authority’s new Housing Opportunity Program, the subsidies are cut from about 59 percent to 50 percent of the standard rent level, allowing the THA to help more families.

The amount remains fixed. Heads of households can get jobs and make more money (up to a certain point) without forfeiting the assistance. If they lose jobs and income, they don’t get more.

All the incentives - including the five-year maximum - are designed to encourage work and personal responsibility. The deadline doesn’t apply to the disabled and elderly.

If the deadlines and subsidy caps sound like the harsher side of tough love, consider the many thousands of needy families who’ve been shut out of rent subsidies entirely as the lucky few kept them indefinitely.

The Tacoma Housing Authority is simultaneously connecting the adults and students in its units to job training and scholarships; cracking down hard on drug abuse; and moving more than $1 million a year to emergency housing for families and youths.

All of this promises to help its clients break out of the cycle of poverty. One word best describes the THA’s direction: visionary.