Taking a page from welfare reform, cities and counties across the United States are embarking on yet another major social experiment - this time in the realm of public housing.
Work requirements and, in some cases, time limits on housing aid are among the new initiatives, part of a rising effort to reemphasize the "temporary" in temporary housing assistance for the poor.
The shift has the potential to radically change the rules for 4.3 million households, including 1,000 families here in rural Smyrna, Del., that now get housing aid (in the form of public housing or rent subsidies).
A town dotted with fast-food joints and churches, Smyrna is one of the few places that has gone so far as to limit how long people can get aid: three years and then they're on their own in the housing market. Not surprisingly, the prospect of going from $80 a month in rent to $500 or more is cause for alarm among some tenants.
As with welfare reform, the housing experiment has its supporters and its detractors. One side sees it as a pathway to a full-time job and financial self-sufficiency; the other decries it as picking on the poor, asserting it could shift families into homelessness or back into living quarters with abusive partners.
"Time limits and work requirements in public housing are right in line with the other reforms of public assistance ... for people who are poor," says Lisa Brush, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh. Nationwide, the average stay in public housing is four years.
To help public-housing tenants and recipients of private-housing vouchers meet the three-year requirement, the Delaware State Housing Authority (DSHA) and some local partners are providing a host of services, everything from parenting classes to job-aptitude assessments.
The biggest boost may be the new rent policy. As families' incomes rise, the amount that used to go toward increased rent will now be placed in savings accounts. Residents can use the money for things like school or car repairs, and they take the savings with them when they leave.
"As families become self-sufficient, this program will prove to be successful," says Cyndi Marshall, DSHA spokeswoman. Of a caseload of 1,300 households, about one-fourth are exempt because of age or disability. The program is one of 21 approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the Moving to Work initiative.
But critics say the financial numbers don't add up. "Even if [aid recipients] are making slightly more than minimum wage, they are going to be in trouble," says Peter Dreier, a public policy professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
In Delaware, for instance, minimum-wage earners would need to put in 75.5 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom unit, according to the nonprofit Delaware Housing Coalition. Although Moving to Work focuses attention on able-bodied people who aren't working, a 1998 HUD report about aid recipients shows that 40 percent of families with children count wages as their primary source of income.
"The answer to [waiting lists] is to expand the amount of subsidized housing, not make it a game of musical chairs," Mr. Dreier adds.
The three-year clock has been ticking in Delaware for only a few months, but some residents may already be moving out because they fear they can't live up to the new standards. "They don't understand, and they have low self-esteem ... so they just run away," says Carolyn Crossman, a resident of McLane Gardens, a cluster of two-story public-housing units in Smyrna.
Ms. Crossman is exempt from time limits, but as chairwoman of the Statewide Tenants Association (SWAT) she aims to bring residents' experience to the decisionmaking table. She says some residents do need to become "unrelaxed" after a long period of welfare dependency, but the group is concerned that three years, or four with an extension, may not be enough.
"If a person has been doing housework or menial labor and they've been getting by,... when you are talking about going from $50 or $80 to $500 or $600 a month, that just overwhelms that person," says Winnie Cooper, who lives with her two sons at McLane Gardens. She says three years will be enough for her, but worries about what will happen if she has a setback.
SWAT members also characterize some of the new rules as punitive. Like the "family caps" in welfare policies, subsidies will not be adjusted to account for additional children. A three-strikes policy threatens eviction if someone violates rent policies or does not keep up a child's school attendance.
"A strike is a last resort for someone who is totally noncooperative," responds the DSHA's Rebecca Kaufmann, who says most residents are enthusiastic about the range of benefits in Moving to Work.
During debate over the federal 1998 Housing Reform Act, "nobody advocated time limits as a national policy," says Rod Solomon, HUD deputy assistant secretary. But if time-limited programs are later held up as models, is HUD sending contradictory messages?
"HUD's been saying, and I think correctly, that public housing shouldn't just be housing of last resort for the poorest of the poor, that it should be a community where people with diverse income levels live," says Dreier. If people must leave after they achieve some success, that could remove valuable role models and job-networking opportunities.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society