Congress Expands Program Giving Housing Authorities More Autonomy Local participants in Moving to Work, a Department of Housing and Urban Development program, like the freedom. But critics say the program doesn't benefit the individuals who rely on those agencies.

Congress Expands Program Giving Housing Authorities More Autonomy

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Pittsburgh has been knocking down old public housing buildings and putting up new homes. The city has made this happen in part because of a pilot program from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That program gives agencies more flexibility using federal dollars, and the developments in Pittsburgh reveal the pros and cons of the program. From member station WESA, Irina Zhorov sent this report.

SELENA STROTHERS: Two bedrooms, one-and-a-half bath, living room, dining room area, kitchen, of course...

IRINA ZHOROV, BYLINE: Selena Strothers' new house is a subsidized unit in Pittsburgh's Hill District. The house and the neighborhood is quiet, roomy, with neat landscaping and amazing city views.

S. STROTHERS: This is really actually our first home. We've always lived in the projects or rented something where we had a slumlord or something.

ZHOROV: The home stands in a mixed-income development that replaced one of Pittsburgh's first public housing projects, Addison Terrace. The Strothers family lived in one of Addison's cramped, barracks-style buildings. They say Addison was an isolated bubble of concentrated poverty and violence in the city. Strothers says that's changed for the better.

S. STROTHERS: We haven't had any - heard any gunshots. We haven't seen any fights or anybody robbing or - the area where I am, I just love it.

ZHOROV: So who's to thank for this development renamed Skyline Terrace?

DAVID WEBER: The Skyline Terrace would not have been possible without the Moving to Work designation.

ZHOROV: That's David Weber, COO of the Pittsburgh Housing Authority. Moving to Work is a HUD pilot program. Its goals are to encourage more effective use of federal dollars and to increase self-sufficiency and housing choices for families. HUD allows the 39 participating agencies to lump their various pots of federal money into one big pot and lifts rules on how the agencies can use that money. HUD leaves it to the local housing authorities to decide how to best serve their clients.

WEBER: The idea of the program was, the federal government doesn't have the answer for every city. Let's let the localities figure out what's going to work best to serve this population in their local market based on their local conditions.

ZHOROV: One big problem in Pittsburgh is old, deteriorating public housing, like Addison Terrace. So the housing authority has used its Moving to Work flexibility to rebuild the complexes, hoping to transform entire neighborhoods in the process. But Will Fischer with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, says there's a tradeoff.

WILL FISCHER: One of the biggest negative effects is that it's allowed agencies to shift really large amounts of money out of the housing voucher program.

ZHOROV: He's referring to the Section 8 program which helps low-income families pay rent in the private market. Using Moving to Work privileges, Pittsburgh has dipped into its Section 8 pot of money in order to fund construction projects like Skyline Terrace. The new public housing units are nicer, but there are fewer of them, and thousands of people are waiting for vouchers.

Strolling the palpably new streets of Skyline Terrace in a steady rain, Selena Strothers' husband, James Strothers, says rebuilding has been good for him and for the city

JAMES STROTHERS: There's a whole lot more diversity up here, and I think that's - the city needs that so everyone can understand each other and things like that. You don't get a misconception of someone's culture. So its nice about that. That's what I like.

ZHOROV: He just wishes more of his former neighbors got to take advantage of it. HUD has acknowledged problems with the Moving to Work designation, including other issues like unequal funding formulas and a lack of real evaluations of what the agencies are doing. While Congress was voting to expand flexibilities to an additional 100 housing authorities, HUD was already negotiating changes to the Moving to Work contracts, something some current participants have resisted. For now, it's unclear which additional housing authorities will get the perks and what those perks will look like. For NPR News, I'm Irina Zhorov in Pittsburg.

SHAPIRO: Irina Zhorov is a reporter for Keystone Crossroads. It's a statewide public media initiative reporting on the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities.

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