Life on Section 8: Using the system to change - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Life on Section 8: Using the system to change

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DUBUQUE (KWWL) -- Despite several high profile crimes in the last few years. A number of stabbings, and a shooting involving a police officer, crime levels in Dubuque are dropping according to a new FBI study.

That FBI study shows violent crime in Dubuque dropped for the second year in a row by more than 17 percent. But because of the perception of a rise in crime, city officials formed a community safe task force, designed to address concerns. One of those concerns started with Section 8 housing, also known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program.

Dawn Smith is a Dubuque native, who decided to move back home when she was pregnant with her daughter. She lived at home for awhile but when she realized that she wanted to support her daughter without relying on family. That's when she applied for Section 8 housing. And she's been living on the support for three years now. And it's what she says is helping her get back on her feet.

The two live in a two bedroom apartment in Dubuque.

"I'm working. I'm trying to better myself and yes, I do have assistance," Smith said.

Smith pays $190 a month to live in the apartment. The rest comes from Section 8 housing assistance.

"People primarily qualify on a basis of income. If they make less than 50 percent of area median income," Housing Department Representative David Harris said.

Harris says Smith isn't alone. There are more than 900 people in the City of Dubuque receiving help.

"It doesn't take much to all of a sudden be in a situation where you need help with your rent," Assistant Housing Director Janet Walker said.

But there are several misconceptions that put Smith at a disadvantage.

"Not everyone on Section 8 is abusing it," Smith said.

Smith says people often associate Section 8 housing with crime. They assume that she's from out of town and that all her neighbors are on Section 8, too.

"I'm not out committing crimes. I got to work everyday. I am trying to provide for my daughter," Smith said.

Over the course of 9 months the Dubuque Police Department tracked arrests across the city. In that time, 265 arrests came from Section 8. That only accounts for 6.5 percent of total arrests.

"Crime happens everywhere and it happens across all economic lines," Police Chief Mark Dalsing said.

But when you compare the rate of arrests to other types of housing in Dubuque, there are an average of 3 arrests for every 10 Section 8 households.

"We do a criminal background check and we also make sure they're within our income guidelines. But the landlords need to be very proactive in check their history as far as tenancy," Walker said.

And that's part of the problem.

"For some landlords, the background check means they have a signed check. And as long as money is rolling in, they don't care and it shows in their properties," Dalsing said.

Smith says when she was looking for a place to live three years ago she ran into a similar situation.

"They were like, as long as I have the money, I could have the place. I didn't even have to tell them my name if I didn't want to," Smith said.

That's why the Dubuque Landlord Association is doing all they can to educate landlords about Section 8. And explain the importance of background checks.

"Pretty soon you've got six or eight people living in an apartment that's really, on the lease, supposed to be for one or two people," Dubuque Landlord Association Secretary Jan Schmitt said.

"I think the majority of people that we serve understand the rules and regulations of the program," Walker said.

A program that Smith says is helping her get back on her feet and supporting herself.

Smith is also participating in the family self-sufficiency program. It's helping her save money to go back to school and eventually buy a place for her and her daughter to live.

The Dubuque Housing Department has cracked down on those abusing the system. They have terminated those who commit crimes, report false information or have an unauthorized person living with them. Participants can only be on the program for 5 years.

LINKS:

Dubuque Housing Information

Dubuque Section 8 Myths

Voucher Fact Sheet

Section 8 Rentals  

Online Reporter: Lauren Squires
Follow Lauren on Twitter.

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