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Housing program in crisis

1-woman staff in Decatur can’t keep up with vouchers

– Across-the-board federal budget cuts have hit the Decatur Housing Authority’s budget so hard, the agency on Tuesday asked the Fort Wayne Housing Authority to essentially take over its operations.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development pays local agencies to run Housing Choice Voucher Programs, which allow low-income people to rent an apartment where the landlord accepts vouchers. Tenants pay 30 percent of their income toward the rent, and the federal government pays the rest.

But the fees HUD pays agencies to operate the programs have been cut by about one-third. In Fort Wayne, that has meant the loss of two of the program’s nine employees and a slowing of the pace at which families are being added to the program to replace those who leave. The agency pays for about $1.3 million worth of vouchers a month.

In Adams County, the Decatur Housing Authority had two employees – Executive Director Janelle Young and a full-time staffer to run the voucher program. The budget cuts first meant cutting the staffer to part-time, Young told the FWHA board, then letting the person go.

That leaves Young to handle the 178 vouchers by herself, and it is overwhelming, she said.

“I now have to run the whole office; I’m there by myself,” she said.

Unlike the Fort Wayne Housing Authority, which owns and operates about 1,000 units of low-income public housing, Decatur Housing Authority does not own any housing, and there are few low-income housing options in the county.

“If this program would fold, I don’t know what would happen to the residents,” Young said. “Seventy-five to 80 percent of our clients are elderly or disabled. They would not be able to stay in their homes without this program.”

Maynard Scales, executive director of the Fort Wayne Housing Authority, said the Decatur Housing Authority could dissolve and turn its clients over to the state, but there are no guarantees that a local agency would run the program. It could also transfer its voucher program to Fort Wayne, he said, but Fort Wayne’s jurisdiction only covers the city of Fort Wayne and five miles beyond its borders.

The better option, Scales said, would be for Decatur Housing Authority to hire the Fort Wayne agency to operate its voucher program.

“Then it’s just managing the program, and we would report to their board on a regular basis,” he said.

But the question is whether Fort Wayne Housing Authority – which has also had its HUD funding cut – can afford to not only take on another 178 vouchers, but to have them located 15 miles away. Decatur Housing Authority gets about $75,000 a year to run its program.

“It comes down to a matter of dollars,” said Fort Wayne Housing Authority board member Andy Downs. “Conceptually, I’m not opposed to it, but with all due respect, we can’t afford to be hemorrhaging more dollars.”

Scales said he would give the board a cost-benefit analysis in October; the board is expected to make a decision then. If approved, FWHA would take over in January.