New public housing community opens as mayor emphasizes anti-poverty push

By Jordan Green 

Mayor Allen Joines peered into the master bedroom at the model apartment in the new 30-unit Camden Station public housing community in East Winston as Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke checked her makeup in the bathroom mirror.

Housing Authority of Winston-Salem CEO Larry Woods beamed in the hallway as Joines complimented the new apartments, which will likely welcome the first tenants in mid-December.

“This is such a pleasant feeling in here,” he said. “The colors are bright.”

Joines expressed interest in Woods’ testimony before the House Budget Committee in Washington, DC on Oct. 28.

“My comment is you don’t get them out of the system by cutting benefits,” Woods told Joines. “You’ve got to grow ’em out of the system.”

Joines has made tackling poverty one of the signature issues of his fourth term as mayor. He announced the initiative shortly after winning reelection in November 2013, and but only launched a so-called anti-poverty “thought force” last month after declaring that the city had ended chronic veteran homelessness.

The new units at Camden Place add to the stock set aside by the housing authority for tenants who commit to maintaining employment — known as “step-up housing” — part of Woods’ effort to prod residents towards self-sufficiency.

“This housing authority, besides providing housing, our goal is to help people move out of poverty and move back into the mainstream,” Woods said during the grand opening of the community on Nov. 6. “We call this development ‘step-up housing.’ The goal is for families to come here and experience market-rate living at affordable rates, at the same time availing themselves of other community services such as scholarship funds to go back to school and reading programs at Winston-Salem State University.”

Joines took the opportunity during his remarks to needle the US Congress, while noting that the city made a $350,000 forgivable loan to help finance the $3.3 million project.

“Larry was in DC the week before last saying, ‘Congress, you’re hamstringing us in our efforts to move people out of poverty; you move people up and then they lose their benefits, so they can’t take that next step,’” Joines said. “So I appreciate you, Larry, taking the gospel up there, and hopefully they heard that.”

In his testimony before the House Budget Committee, chaired by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Woods called the federal public housing system “broken.” Emphasizing that he neither advocates investing more money in public housing nor cutting benefits, he said, “It’s about implementing policies that actually provide a positive exit strategy for getting people out of the safety net. Right now, there is no exit strategy.

“We are simply warehousing people in our programs,” he added. “There’s no focus on getting people in, up and out. Our focus has been exclusively on making sure people get in.”

Woods’ message elicited a warmer response from members of the Republican majority than from the Democratic members of the committee.

After insisting that “nobody’s talking about slashing programs,” Chairman Price sounded a theme very much in line with Woods’ vision.

“We’re simply interested in making sure that we shift from measuring the success of these programs by the amount of money we put in to measuring the success on what the outcome is — how many people are we actually helping, how many folks are we raising out of poverty and into self-sufficient, rewarding lives? And the numbers are not promising right now.”

Olivia Golden, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Law and Social Policy, pushed back against the notion that antipoverty programs instituted in the mid-1960s are failing.

“The nation’s core safety-net programs are highly effective,” said Golden, who testified alongside Woods. “They sharply reduce poverty and they improve nutrition for millions of children, families and individuals.”

Golden testified that safety-net programs enable poor people to work rather than discouraging them from doing so.

“The evidence, when you actually look at the research, is that these programs actually promote work,” Golden said. “They provide incentives to work overall. And that’s for some very sensible, common-sense reasons. When you have nutrition, when you can go to the doctor, when your housing is stable, you’re more likely not to have your life disrupted and to lose work, that’s one reason. When you have help paying for childcare, the evidence is overwhelming that contributes to more stable and longer lasting work.”

Woods complained during his testimony that federal regulations prevent his agency from mandating that public-housing clients maintain employment. He said the regulations have hindered the success of the “step-up housing” program. In lieu of enforceable work requirements, his agency is rewarding tenants who voluntarily enroll with choice units in newly constructed communities like Camden Station.

“Unfortunately, under the current regulatory and statutory structure we cannot fully implement this program,” Woods testified. “We have faced roadblock after roadblock, restrictions after restrictions, restricting our ability to require or incentivize our clients’ participation. Residents have told us until they are required to do something more than what the regulations require they are content to maintain the status quo.”

Chairman Price asked Woods to explain how federal regulations throw up barriers in local efforts to move people towards self-sufficiency.

Woods responded by noting that 700 families in Winston-Salem public housing live within walking distance of the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. A couple years ago, he said, Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina offered a CD-L truck-driving licensing program

“The program said that if you passed this program, which is about a 12-16 week program, you were guaranteed a job starting anywhere from $30 to $35,000,” Woods testified. “I went to the CEO and said, ‘I would like to pledge $28,000 so that at least seven of my tenants can avail themselves of this training.’ We offered it to all 700 households. Not one of them took us up on it. We could not figure out why. Why if there’s an opportunity to get training [and] it doesn’t cost you anything you won’t avail? And the comment was, ‘It’s not a requirement.’”

Woods later added that when his clients get a job, their housing subsidy is reduced, along with SNAP benefits, “and they find themselves in a worse condition than they were before so they say, ‘Why should I even try to work if I’m going to be in a worse economic condition?’”

Golden also had an answer for that conundrum.

“Particularly for parents raising kids, who are the people who are poorest, the ability to work jobs that pay a family wage and that you could get enough hours to sustain your worth is just not there,” she said.

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