The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Tuesday it and the city of Dubuque have signed a voluntary compliance agreement to correct housing policies that HUD says discriminate against the black community.
In June of 2011, HUD conducted an audit of Dubuque's Housing and Community Development Department's Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as the Section 8 rental assistance program. Two years later, in June of 2013, HUD released a report on its findings, saying two particular policies discriminate against black people.
First of all, Dubuque has had a preference system in place, giving extra points to people currently living in the Dubuque area. HUD said that discriminates against black people moving from places such as Chicago or Milwaukee.
"The review found that, in response to racial tensions and concerns about crime, the City established a residency preference point system that effectively imposed a residency requirement, putting those from predominantly African American areas at a disadvantage," HUD said in a media release Tuesday.
Secondly, Dubuque has a Section 8 voucher shortage. HUD says the city should have 1,063 vouchers. Due to a recent voucher freeze that let up in January 2014, the city is now down to about 800 vouchers. It was at about 850 vouchers when HUD did its initial audit. That means people disadvantaged by the preference point system have an even smaller chance of getting a voucher.
"After limiting eligibility for the program, the City executed a voucher issuance freeze, so as to decrease the size of the program by roughly two hundred vouchers, and conducted a significant purge of the wait list," HUD's release said. "Purging removed 90% of the applications from African Americans in 2010. The new policies left only elderly or disabled out of state residents eligible for the program.
Alvin Nash is director of Dubuque's Housing and Community Development Department. He moved to Dubuque in 2012 to take the job, more than a year after HUD's initial audit.
"We're going to rewrite the administrative rules to make sure that there's no misinterpretation," Nash said of the city's compliance measures, adding he'll assure "that the rules and regulations according to the HUD guidelines are followed to the letter."
Nash said he plans on phasing out the preference point system over the course of the next two months. The preference system also gives additional points to elderly individuals, people with disabilities, veterans and people coming straight out of foster care, Nash said. Those preference points will be removed as well.
"It's going to be a first-come, first-qualify, first-serve (system)," Nash said.
He said meeting the required level of 1,063 Section 8 housing vouchers will likely take two to three years.
Dubuque city council member Lynn Sutton is president of the NAACP's Dubuque chapter.
"The voucher program is for anyone that applies," Sutton said. "Now there'll be stricter guidelines so, therefore, people can't be discriminated against, regardless of what."
She said the local NAACP chapter will be monitoring the Housing and Community Development Department's Section 8 rental assistance program overhaul.
"We have a committee set up to monitor the compliance and to look at (complaints) also," she said. "With a joint effort, I think it will be much better."
However, even with a program overhaul, Nash said, some area landlords aren't helping. A glance through the classified ads for rental properties shows many of them say, "No housing" in the description, meaning that landlord won't accept Section 8 housing vouchers.
"In some localities, there's no way you would ever see a sign like that in the paper," Nash said. "I'm from Roanoke, Virginia and I can assure you no landlord would, because the push-back from the community would be, 'Are you kidding me? You can't do that!'"
While it is legal for a landlord to not accept housing vouchers, Nash said he considers it unfair and says it limits the housing available to people in need.
Nash said he thinks many landlords who do not accept housing vouchers are doing so because of a negative perception of people in the Section 8 rental assistance program.
"If we changed the way that landlords did business, then I can see them not wanting to (accept housing vouchers), and I can respect that," Nash said. "But if it's just a perception or concern about the problem in general, I think you have to do that on a one-on-one basis, and if you get somebody who's a bad tenant, you get rid of them."
How the Housing Choice Voucher Program works, Nash says, is people, based on their income, may pay 30 percent, 50 percent or even 70 percent of the rent. The city, using dollars from HUD, funds the remainder.
"We simply provide part of the rent," Nash said. "That's all we do with regard to the landlord, so it would be like the landlord saying, 'No John Deere. No IBM. If that's where you get your money from -- no City of Dubuque -- we don't want that money.'"
Dubuque currently has about 9,000 rental units. HUD determines the required number of housing vouchers based on a city's population and rate of poverty, Nash said.