NOEL KING, HOST:
The secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, has proposed a change. The idea is to allow housing authorities across the country to require that low-income people work in order to live in affordable housing. Now, Carson says work requirements can help people become more self-sufficient. And he pointed to Charlotte, N.C., as an example of where that's happened. So NPR's Brakkton Booker went to check it out.
BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: When HUD Secretary Ben Carson was seeking insight for his rent reform plan, he spoke to Fulton Meachem.
FULTON MEACHEM: They were very specific about our program being more of a supportive services program. Just asking someone to go to work has not really been successful, I believe.
BOOKER: Fulton Meachem is the president of the Charlotte Housing Authority. He describes it as a quasi-governmental organization, and he makes clear the program is not just about mandating work for adults 18 to 61 years old. The focus is on services it provides to residents so they can overcome barriers.
MEACHEM: Is it child care? Is it education? Is it transportation? And working with them to really address those barriers.
BOOKER: The program calls for at least 20 hours of work per week. And if residents can't find work, then volunteering or enrolling in job training will suffice. The requirements started here in 2011, and since then, Charlotte Housing says, of the 22,000 residents it serves at any given time, some 800 families have moved up and out of public housing.
MEACHEM: I did not get into this business to warehouse poor people. That's what I didn't want to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAMILY AFFAIR")
MARY J. BLIGE: (Singing) Let's get it percolating.
BOOKER: Here at the Southside Homes, a sprawling affordable housing complex with nearly 400 units, I meet Paulette Culbreth. She's been a resident with Charlotte Housing since 2003.
PAULETTE CULBRETH: I'm glad you made it.
BOOKER: There's a DJ here, and the smell of grilled hotdogs is in the air. It's Community Resource Day.
What's going on over here?
CULBRETH: This is a celebration of the community. We have vendors to help you with child care. And, you know, you need a little help with your kids at times.
BOOKER: You could also get information about training services and programs to potentially help earn more money. Culbreth takes me to her unit across the street.
BOOKER: She pays $188 a month in rent and has a case manager who helps her stay on track with life and work goals. The 45-year-old grandmother makes $12.50 an hour working for Charlotte Housing. Her job - connecting other residents with training and benefit programs.
CULBRETH: I want to be an example and to let them know, hey, I done been there.
BOOKER: Culbreth was a single mom. She's been to jail and battled drugs and alcohol over the years. She says, now, life is moving in a positive direction.
CULBRETH: I know exactly where you're talking about. Let me take you to where you need to go to.
BOOKER: She shares with me her vision board she keeps by the bed as a reminder of big future dreams.
CULBRETH: I told you. I'm almost there. That's my house, my Lamborghini and my yacht. And I'm going to have that, celebrating that in 15 years.
BOOKER: Don't dwell on those particulars. The real focus should be on the fact that she's brimming with confidence and striving to set an example for her family, says William Rohe. He's the director of Urban and Regional Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One question I have for him, have a significant number of people moved out of public housing since the work requirements have been implemented?
WILLIAM ROHE: Well, the answer to that is not many.
BOOKER: Rohe has done extensive research on Charlotte's work requirement program. He says the city is in the middle of a real estate boom. The average rent for a one bedroom - roughly $1,200 a month on the private market, out of reach for many.
ROHE: The people who have gotten jobs have typically gotten low-wage jobs and part-time jobs. And with that kind of salary, you're really not going to be able to afford to rent on the private market.
BOOKER: So should HUD push other housing authorities to follow Charlotte's work requirement model? Rohe emphatically says, no.
ROHE: To have a blanket - every housing authority has to do this would have been an absolute disaster.
BOOKER: He adds, if work requirements lead to a lot of evictions, then it really becomes counterproductive. Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Charlotte.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHILANTHROPE'S "REBIRTH")
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