Public housing residents must do community service work

HOUMA – About 70 letters were mailed last week to residents of Terrebonne Parish’s two public-housing complexes informing them of a new federal law that requires them to volunteer in the community eight hours each month or face eviction.

Several Senator Circle tenants attended Thursday night’s Houma-Terrebonne Housing Authority to find out why.

“You make a dime, and they want nine cents,” said resident Telisa Clark. “How are we supposed to make a living?”

Clark is one of hundreds of thousands of unemployed public housing residents across the country who will be required to work in schools, churches or other nonprofit groups starting in October.

The rule makes sure residents give something back to their communities, which “facilitates upward mobility,” the Department of Housing and Urban Development says in a June letter to local housing authorities.

Of the letters mailed to tenants last week, 68 were sent to Senator Circle and two were sent to Bayou Towers, which houses mostly elderly and disabled residents, said Judy Escamilla, executive director of the Houma-Terrebonne Housing Authority.

“The federal government wants to ensure public housing is used as a stepping stone,” said Escamilla.

Two meetings about the new community-service requirement will be held at Senator Circle at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 21. Residents are encouraged to attend to discuss the law and how to fulfill the eight-hour-per-month service requirement.

“We want people to understand what this is all about,” said Escamilla.

Residents who fail to comply with the rule are subject to possible non-renewal of their leases, she said.

Community service is part of the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, approved by a Republican-led Congress in 1998.

Officials with HUD took two years to complete the regulations, which briefly went into effect in 2015.

A few months later, Congress last year approved a Democratic-sponsored amendment that put the plan on hold for most public housing tenants.

The rule was reinstated June 20.

Designed to boost struggling neighborhoods and introduce the unemployed to possible careers, there are more than a dozen exemptions to the rule, which affects public housing residents age 18 to 62.

HUD estimates the rule exempts 80 percent of its 2 million adult clients living in public housing, leaving about 370,000 to fulfill the community-service requirement.

Exempt residents include those who are blind, 62 or older, working, in school, mothers participating in welfare-to-work programs, the disabled, or those engaged in job-training or job-search programs.

The local housing agency will decide what amounts to community service, said Executive Director Judy Escamilla.

But HUD is encouraging housing authorities to consider a 30-hour workweek as the minimum for the work exemption. Among other places, suggested volunteerism activities include day-care centers, neighborhood councils, social service agencies and homeless shelter.

“Many are already doing this, but we just need the documentation,” said Escamilla.

Those some may like the idea, the new law has raised some thorny issues about the rights and responsibilities of those living in public housing.

Some charge that it’s free labor, discriminates against the poor and could end up being costly to cash-strapped tenants if transportation and child care is not paid for. Volunteering also takes time away from job-searching, said Clark, who has four young children.

The local housing authority will be responsible for making sure residents do the work, a lofty goal but a bureaucratic nightmare, said Escamilla.

“We’re being told to do this but Congress isn’t giving the housing authorities any extra money to monitor this new law,” she said.

Under the federal plan, residents will self-report their work on a form they must submit and retrieve every month from the Housing Authority office. A HUD official is supposed to come by and check that residents are volunteering.

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