For housing authorities, "public charge" expected to sow confusion and add administrative costs
Housing assistance programs are included among the noncash benefits in the Trump administration’s proposed revisions to the public charge rule, including public housing and tenant- and project-based housing choice vouchers, known as Section 8.
The public charge rule is not new, but the proposed changes are significant. Currently, immigration officials apply the rule to determine whether green card applicants could become primarily dependent on the government by looking at their reliance on financial assistance or long-term institutionalized care.
Relatively few noncitizens are eligible for the housing assistance. Currently, housing assistance is limited to lawful permanent residents, refugees, asylees, and temporary agricultural workers granted special legal status.
We have little reliable data on the total number of noncitizens who participate in housing assistance programs, but the text of the proposed rule notes that noncitizens’ use of housing assistance programs “is relatively low,” citing the eligibility criteria. In addition to housing assistance, the expanded version of the rule would include noncash safety net programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, and Medicare prescription drug subsidies. Other factors such as an applicant’s health, employment, English proficiency, and income and financial status would also be considered. The public charge test would include those applying for a green card or temporary visa.
Yet some noncitizen and immigrant families—including those with US-born children—who qualify under the categories specified above participate in housing assistance programs, and housing authorities are concerned that the rule will sow confusion among residents about whether they can remain in their homes.
Organizations representing public housing authorities such as the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, the Public Housing Authority Directors Association (PDF), and the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities have issued statements opposing the rule, noting that most noncitizens are ineligible for housing assistance and that the proposed rule could confuse households already receiving assistance.
Certain authorities serving large numbers of immigrants such as Home Forward, the housing authority of Portland and Multnomah County, Oregon, and the Seattle Housing Authority have discussed the public charge rule with their staff and residents to understand how residents perceive the possible rule change. They have also tried to prepare staff for questions from concerned residents. Home Forward has issued its own public statement opposing the rule (PDF).
Reports of anxiety among eligible families are well founded. Stories of immigrant families dropping out of nutrition assistance programs and health care have surfaced since drafts of the rule were leaked in March 2018.
While few noncitizens qualify for housing assistance, those who might become eligible because of a change in immigration status may be reluctant to apply, potentially increasing the risk of housing insecurity among immigrant households.
Housing authorities have also highlighted cost as an issue—those associated with both training staff on handling inquiries and dispelling confusion as well as potentially having to provide documentation to verify benefit use by green card or visa applicants. While the burden of documenting benefit use will fall upon applicants themselves, housing authorities—and other agencies that administer safety net programs—could be called upon to confirm or correct dates or details.
The rationale for the public charge rule is to promote self-sufficiency and reduce federal spending on immigrants. Because of noncitizens’ limited participation in housing assistance programs, including them in the proposed rule would not likely result in public expenditure savings.
However, new requirements imposed by the rule could lead to higher costs or trade-offs, such as spending limited public dollars on administrative costs rather than additional housing vouchers that could help more families find homes.
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