`Volunteer' requirement rankles residents of public housing

Matt Stearns

September 2, 2003

http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/6673213.htm

WASHINGTON - When is volunteer community service not really voluntary? When the federal government threatens to throw you out of your home if you don't comply.

A rule to be enforced starting in October will require certain public housing residents to perform eight hours a month of community service. Those who refuse such duty face eviction.

Officials say it will affect about 20 percent of the 2 million Americans who live in public housing, because there are exemptions for those with jobs or in school, for the disabled and for the elderly. As many as 900 public housing residents in Kansas City and 300 in Kansas City, Kan., will be affected.

"I think folks have to understand that eight hours a month in exchange for having a roof over your head is an extremely reasonable request," said Michael Liu, assistant secretary for public and Indian housing at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It also will help people develop skills they can use to find jobs, Liu said.

But critics say the rule discriminates against the poor, will fall disproportionately on stay-at-home parents, and is another unfunded federal mandate issued at a time when public housing authorities are hurting for money. On top of that, they point out, many people who live in public housing do pay some rent.

"People who get a homebuyer's tax credit also receive federal help," said Kim Willis, a policy analyst at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "Nobody's requiring them to do volunteer service."

The reaction among public housing residents in Kansas City has generally been negative, said Connie Flowers, a longtime Kansas City public housing resident who is executive director of the Kansas City Housing Authority's tenant council.

"A lot of tenants think it's unfair," Flowers said. "They think it's a form of slavery again. They want a real opportunity to work. It shouldn't be attached to housing."

Ethel Coleman, who spent 41 years living in public housing in Kansas City, Kan., agreed. She says the opportunity for real paid work -- not volunteer make-work -- would make it easier for people to make enough money to do what she did: Save up enough to buy their own homes.

"I'm not sure rules like this are helpful," Coleman said.

Several critics said the rule will hurt stay-at-home parents of young children because they will have to find someone to take care of their children while they volunteer. The rule does not allocate any money for child care.

"The ones with the little bitty children, 1, 2, 3 years old, what are they supposed to do with them?" Flowers asked. "And they don't have any money; that's why they're in public housing."

Liu rejected the notion that the requirement would be a hardship for parents, noting that plenty of volunteer activities can be done at home, such as "darning clothes for churches." He also said baby-sitting could count as a volunteer service.

Flowers also expressed concern that adult children living with their parents -- such as a 19-year-old son -- would have to comply with the rule.

"You know how 18-, 19-year-olds are," Flowers said. "People are going to be losing their homes based on what someone else didn't do. That's not fair."

Administering the rule will also be a burden for public housing authorities. No additional money has been allocated for it.

Liu said public housing agencies should be able to pay for it with existing money available to them, or though nonfederal money.

Thomas Stibal, executive director of the Kansas City, Kan., Housing Authority, said it would be difficult because his authority had received funding for only 90 percent of its existing requirements.

"The fact of the matter is, housing authorities are being strapped financially by funding cutbacks and the elimination of programs in Washington," Stibal said. "Other resources aren't always out there or available."

That means housing authorities will have to be creative in coming up with volunteer opportunities for residents, said Caster Binion, deputy executive director for public housing of the Kansas City Housing Authority.

"There is a financial burden to it," Binion said. "But it's not one that's going to break us. It depends on how complicated you want to make the program."

Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, who is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that funds HUD programs, will monitor the program to see whether more money is needed for child care and administration, said Bond spokesman Ernie Blazar.

The requirement passed Congress in 1998 but has been enforced only once, and then briefly, because of legislative maneuvering.

Some who support the general concept have philosophical problems with the way it's presented.

Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said "it's entirely reasonable" for the government to expect something in return for subsidizing housing.

"But to call it voluntarism is really pernicious," Tanner said. "It undercuts true voluntarism. We should be upfront that this is a work requirement for receiving public housing, just as there are work requirements for receiving welfare."

The Star's Finn Bullers and Glenn E. Rice contributed to this report.

To reach Matt Stearns, Washington correspondent, call 1-(202) 383-6009

or send e-mail to mstearns@krwashington.com.