By Katie Stewart | Reporter
After 80 years since the establishment of the Waco Housing Authority, changes are underway to convert from serving as public housing to Section 8 voucher program.
Section 8 is a mobilizing program that allows low-income families to choose private rental housing options. The program helps over 1.4 million households in the United States,” says the US Department of Housing and Urban Development website.
The Waco Housing Authority, chartered by Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is a branch of the federally operated program and acts as the landlord and maintenance structure for the housing sites.
Milet Hopping, president and CEO of the Waco Housing Authority, said that with converting to a Section 8 program, the Waco Housing Authority would receive a subsidy, due to funding changes made in 2003. The process has officially begun with consultants to make proper updates before the conversion to Section 8 is final. In 1974, congress authorized Section 8, called the Housing Choice Voucher Program, to provide rental subsidies for eligible tenant families.
The three sites it manages under the arm of HUD are Kate Ross, next to Baylor and the Silos, South Terrace off near the new La Salle Ave. development and Estella Maxey off Herring Ave. These three sites make up 902 public housing units in Waco.
Hopping said in the current standing they are responsible for the units including maintenance and repair similar to any other rental properties.
“[With public housing] that’s where we’re the landlord, we maintain the properties. I am the maintenance person; we’re the people who have to go out and get roof bids,” Hopping said.
All units in Waco were built around the 1940s and 1950s. Kate Ross, near Baylor, is the oldest built in 1941. Hopping said that public housing was meant to be a way for people to improve their lives after the Great Depression.
“When housing was first formed, it was meant to be a step up. We had just come from the depression, so people needed places to live, and while work was starting to become available, pay was really low,” Hopping said. “Part of that revival of the economy was to build these housing units so that people would have a place to live.”
HUD regulations specify that rent is calculated based on 30 percent of the tenant’s income, where the individual qualifying only earns 30 percent of median of the income based on Waco’s income data.
Whatever the difference in rent from the remaining 60 percent the tenant cannot pay, the Waco Housing Authority will receive that money in its current program, or the landlord under a Section 8 program. Additionally, the Section 8 vouchers would allow more mobility of residents rather than a stationary eligibility for public housing.
Section 8 is where qualifying individuals are given a voucher that determines the exact amount of the 30 percent of the individual’s income, the bedroom size needed and the amount the program is willing to pay. Landlords who accept Section 8 know after the tenant has paid their part, the balance is automatically deposited into the landlord’s account between the 1st and the 3rd every month.
Hopping explains although it’s the tenant’s choice to find a house or apartment complex within McLennan County, affordable housing is not as accessible as it used to be in Waco.
“Housing is shrinking and availability is shrinking,” Hopping said.
In addition to veterans and elderly residents, Kate Ross houses tenants transitioning from Mental Health and Mental Retardation (MHMR) institutions. Because Kate Ross is the oldest site, it will be the last site to undergo the conversion and updates. Hopping explained that the newer sites will be a small-scale chance to work out any kinks in the process so that once Kate Ross changes begins, the transition will run smoothly.
Consultants have already been hired to assess physical updates needed for the units, like electrical needs and led-based paint inspections. They will then present options to the Waco Housing Authority to see what updates are affordable. Some units do not have washer and dryer connections, and flooring and lighting hasn’t been replaced in about 15 years.
Hopping said she hopes the community centers can be updated from its interior cement block to be made to feel more welcoming and inspire residents to be a more engaged population. Other considerations Hopping talked about would be environmentally friendly updates like eliminating the need for heavy irrigation with designs more drout-tolerant with low maintenance landscaping.
“Some [sites] have landscaping; it’s different at every site, but are we using our money the way we need to? Should we have more zero-scaping, should we be friendlier with the environment,” said Hopping. “If we want to consider doing green projects so that their sustainable, should we be looking at solar things and other kinds of things?”
Some residents have been concerned that, in the example of Kate Ross, the development will take over some of the units on the west side of I-35. Hopping was firm that Kate Ross is not for sale and that the development being so close to the site offers new opportunities to residents.
“Our poor work, they just don’t have the skills to work at high paying jobs,” Hopping said. “[With ]Kate Ross, we’re right by the silos, well somebody can walk to work. You’ve just eliminated a huge barrier to employment.”
Lonnie Burns, resident of Kate Ross for 18 months, said he’s heard the concern about Kate Ross being sold, but he’s excited about the updates and changes coming their way.
“A lot of people are saying that Kate Ross is going to be sold,” said Burns. “But I love it here; I love my apartment. I think it’s going to be good.”
Jeanne Byrd, director of community services at Kate Ross, said residents have mixed feelings about the changes, and she has also heard residents’ concerns that Kate Ross will be sold.
“Some of them are scared that things are changing. Some are kind of excited,” Byrd said. “We’ve had to clarify with the residents: we’re not selling it.”
Hopping believes the community can grow stronger by raising the standard of living for the residents.
“If we raise that standard of life for everybody, then we have to assume that our society becomes better,” Hopping said. “I don’t know if that’s just a philosophy of life, or if that’s a philosophy that really talks about how we strengthen a community.”