Commentary - Questions remain about HRA's rent rate decision
By Jennie Hevern, Alexandria, MN
[In response to the October 1 story, "Rents rise for poor."]
I have attended several of the Douglas County Housing Redevelopment Authority (HRA) meetings and frankly, I am amazed that a decision was made that will create a hardship for low income people who have or had a Housing Choice Voucher Section 8.
To qualify for a Housing Choice Voucher Section 8 you have to meet certain income criteria. Section 8 housing was developed a number of years ago so low-income people could live in safe and affordable housing.
This policy was to go into effect on August 1, 2010 but was postponed, as the Douglas County HRA had not given the landlords or tenants the notice required by Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
At the public meeting on August 30, 2010 several tenants attended and spoke about how the increase would affect them. There were also other community members as well.
In the meetings I have attended, and in Douglas County HRA documents as well as information on how to resolve a shortfall issue, there has not been any discussion as to other options. In fact, when pressed for an answer to the question asked on August 30, 2010 at the public hearing, "Did the board of commissioners consider other options?" James Jensen, the board chair, after a pause, said no.
To date, I have not seen or heard any evidence that validates this decision that was finally passed on August 30, 2010. I also have not heard or seen why only 221 Section 8 vouchers are in use when Douglas County's allocation is 245 vouchers. Question; will we lose vouchers that are not used and why aren't they used when we have over 200 hundred on the waiting list? Until recently, I did not know that the tax levy funding from the Douglas County budget was used for administration.
You may wonder why there wasn't an outrage from the tenants. I ask people who call if they have attended any of the HRA meetings, or if they went to the public hearing? The response is they are afraid to ask or challenge any decisions made by the HRA.
This whole issue may be water over the dam and there is no recourse for tenants. However, if the phone calls that the Salvation Army is getting from people who are concerned that they are not going to be able to pay their rent is any indication, it is going to be a long winter. In the last 12 months the Douglas County Salvation Army has assisted 30 individuals and 33 families that were homeless. West Central Minnesota Communities Action has also seen a rise in homeless people seeking assistance.
I was not surprised that Jeff Schiffman, director of the Douglas County HRA, declined to comment as the Douglas County HRA is funded in a separate tax levy and therefore is an entity in itself and not compelled to answer questions.
With the food shelf busier, monthly food distribution well attended, working hours cut, the unemployed looking for work, the unemployed who are no longer counted after unemployment is exhausted, there could not be a worse time to add an increase in rent. Residents now are juggling between paying their full rent and not their utilities, cutting their food costs, missing meals, trying to find cheaper housing, not filling the prescriptions, hoping that there is something left for gas and hoping their vehicle doesn't break down.
Perhaps research and discussion on the cost of having two HRAs in a county of about 33,000 is necessary and are the taxpayers, as well as the people served, getting the best and most effective service.
I would hope that our community will respond; time will tell.