13 INVESTIGATES: Public Housing Loopholes - WVTM-TV: News, Weather, and Sports for Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: Public Housing Loopholes

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BIRMINGHAM, AL -

April Fowler counts her home as a blessing.

You see, two years ago she lost her job in Georgia when she decided to move to Jacksonville, Alabama and take care of her sick mother.

“I try to the best I can for my mom, because her health isn't all that good.  So moving here just benefits that.  That's why I lost my job. I chose to move.  You know, family's more important,” Fowler pointed out.

Since they were living on only one income, Fowler needed affordable housing.

She said she couldn't be happier with her three bedroom apartment at the Jacksonville Public Housing Authority.

“It is a very quiet community, very good housing, let's just put it like that.  It pretty much helps people with low incomes,” Fowler said.

We discovered families with higher incomes benefit from the tax-funded housing too.

Over the last few months, we filed open records requests with every Public Housing Authority in our viewing area.

We asked for a comprehensive list of household incomes.

Out of those 60 total Housing Authorities covering 21 counties, 18 Housing Authorities responded to our request.

Examine comprehensive income lists for nine of the Public Housing Authorities to the right.

After studying all the spreadsheets and compiling all the numbers, we discovered nearly four dozen families living in public housing had earned more than the median Alabama household income, which is $42,934.

That group of Housing Authorities included the one where Fowler lives in Jacksonville.   

When we pointed out that one of her neighbors earned about $72,000 a year, Fowler replied, “Oh well, I can believe it.  Because there are a lot of people that, to me I look at it is that people cheat the system.”

Cindy Newsome is the Executive Director of the Jacksonville Housing Authority.

She has fourteen families earning more than the subsidized rent limit.

That group includes the family making $71,945 dollars which moved in, in 1991.

“When she first moved here, I don't think she even had a job.  And she later on got a job and her kids grew up and they got their own jobs and all that.  So no one moves in that's over income,” Newsome claimed.

Newsome said in order to initially qualify for public housing, your household income must fall below the federal standard set for a family your size in your community.

If your income increases over time and exceeds that federal standard, you lose your housing subsidy and you must pay full rent.

However, Newsome said they cannot force you out to make room for a needier family, even when there are hundreds of families on a waiting list like there are for Jacksonville's Housing Authority.

When we asked Newsome if she thinks the rules should be changed to encourage or require families to move out once they can afford private housing, Newsome responded, ”In an ideal world yes, that would be very good.  But when you take people who have lived here a long time and really don't want to move they consider that their home, it would be hard to go in there and tell them they have to move.”

A man living at the Ashland Housing Authority gets the distinction for the highest salary in our survey.

Last year he earned $107,796.

The Housing Authority's Director, who did not want to go on camera, told us his wealthiest residents do not deny affordable housing for those who need it more.

He claimed since they have a handful of vacancies, they can accept tenants who earn more than the federal income limit, even those with six figure salaries.

However, he pointed out that the higher income residents understand they must move out if a qualified tenant needs their unit.

Wayne East, who runs Gadsden's Public Housing Authority, claimed more than 200 of their families pay full rent, and that rent makes up 50 percent of the Housing Authority's revenue.

“So that means that HUD and the taxpayers are not paying as much for Gadsden in subsidy as if we had a rental base of twenty percent,” East argued.

While East believes wealthier families can be financial role models for their neighbors in public housing, April Fowler thinks they should move out and make room for the less fortunate.

“I feel for the people that's making that money, I feel like they should, once they're able to pay a regular bill at a regular house, they should be able to think their self wise enough to say look we are going to move out for somebody else that needs this,” Fowler concluded.

Fowler looks forward to the day she can afford to do that herself.

Even though public housing families whose income exceeds the federal limit must pay full rent and do not receive a tax-funded discount, the Housing Authority does manage the complex.

Since the Housing Authority does receive money from the government, in a way, those families still cost the taxpayers more money than if they lived in private housing.

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