By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Mike Carter was preparing for work one morning when his son leapt from behind the bed and tackled his dad’s legs in a big bear hug.
Caught off balance by the playful attack, Carter fell and snapped his back.
That was 24 years ago. He was 41 years old at the time and employed as a sewing machine mechanic, a job he had held most of his life. But the injury ended his career and put him in a wheelchair. He has survived on disability checks ever since.
“I had had polio, and when I broke my back it just finished up the job the polio didn’t,” said Carter, now 65.
His monthly disability check today totals $983 for an annual income of just $11,796 – well below the area’s poverty line. Because of this, Carter qualified for the federal housing choice voucher program, better known as Section 8.
It pays 60 percent of his monthly rent, freeing up some much-needed income that Carter then can spend on groceries, medicine and other necessities.
“If I didn’t have it, I couldn’t live here,” Carter said, referring to his two-bedroom house. “If they didn’t help me, I would have no where to go. I’d live in the bottom, I guess.”
Despite its obvious benefits to people like Carter, the Section 8 program faced criticism recently from Tupelo’s mayor and some City Council members. They questioned why a disproportionate number of voucher recipients – mostly low-income minorities – live in Tupelo as opposed to elsewhere in the region.
Of the 1,554 vouchers currently active in the 10 counties covered by the Tennessee Valley Regional Housing Authority, 53 percent belong to families living in Lee County. And of those, 86 percent – 713 – live in Tupelo.
“That’s screwed up,” Ward 5 City Councilman Jonny Davis said during a recent city meeting to discuss Tupelo’s middle-class decline.
In the past decade, Tupelo saw its population and median household incomes stall while suburban communities around it gained both residents and wealth, according to the latest census data.
Guntown grew by 76 percent and Saltillo by 40 percent, versus Tupelo’s 1 percent population gain since the turn of the century.
At the same time, the Tupelo Public School District saw its minority student population increase – from 40.2 percent a decade ago to 54.2 percent this year – and it now battles a growing perception of discipline problems in the schools.
Fifty-five percent of the current Section 8 voucher families have school-age children, according to TVRHA statistics.
And 69 percent of all voucher holders in the region are minorities, the agency said.
In Lee County, that percentage is higher: Eight in every 10 are African American, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s 83 percent in Tupelo, HUD reported.
Davis blamed the middle-class decline, in part, on Tupelo’s high number of federally subsidized housing units. Mayor Jack Reed Jr., at the same meeting, proposed a temporary ban on any new Section 8 vouchers coming into the city.
“We’ve taken care of Section 8 folks for 20 years,” Reed said. “We’ve been doing more than our share.”
But it’s unlikely such a ban would pass because of its potential violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, said Thomas Coleman, executive director of the Tennessee Valley Regional Housing Authority.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discriminatory practices when it comes to renting, selling and mortgage lending.
“I am not in a position to restrict the use of the voucher by the tenant,” Coleman said.
The TVRHA issues vouchers to applicants who meet strict federal requirements. They’re based primarily on income, but also factor in age, disability, family size, criminal background and previous housing references.
The number of vouchers in the region fluctuates monthly but usually averages 1,432. At least three-fourths must go to applicants who earn less than 30 percent of the area’s median family income.
In Lee County, that figure is $15,950 for a family of four.
Once a voucher is issued, the recipient can seek housing anywhere within TVRHA’s 10-county region, which covers Alcorn, Chickasaw, Itawamba, Lee, Monroe, Pontotoc, Prentiss, Tippah, Tishomingo and Union counties.
Once the recipient finds a rental house or apartment, the landlord must agree to accept the voucher and then must submit to annual TVRHA housing inspections. Landlords are not required by law to accept vouchers, but many do because of the guaranteed income and strict background checks required of applicants by TVRHA.
The TVRHA is one of nine regional housing authorities in the state to oversee voucher programs.
The program “pre-screens them so you’re not going to get a felon or a child molester,” said Tupelo property owner Stacy McFerrin, who rents to several Section 8 voucher recipients.
McFerrin said he likes the program and defended the families as mostly good people who have fallen on hard times.
“Just because people are poor doesn’t mean their kids don’t do their homework,” he said. “But it’s like a lot of good programs where you’re going to have some people taking advantage of it.”
He also countered the perception that Section 8 housing is substandard, saying all his units must pass both municipal and TVRHA inspections before the program accepts them.
While Tupelo leaders singled out the voucher program as a potential source of woe, it represents only a quarter of the government subsidized housing in TVRHA’s 10-county region.
There also are 1,211 low-income public housing units maintained by the TVRHA, as well as 1,448 public units overseen by the various municipal housing authorities in the region.
Most of the TVRHA’s units are single-family homes nestled into otherwise regular neighborhoods. Such is the case for its 19 public houses in Tupelo, all of which are scattered throughout the Haven Acres subdivision.
Public housing managed by the municipal authorities, on the other hand, tend to cluster together in “communities.” The Tupelo Housing Authority, for example, oversees four communities – Canal Street Courts in east Tupelo, Park Hill Village East and Park Hill Village West along Green Street, and Timber Ridge on Mitchell Road.
In addition, the region is home to 1,373 privately owned, yet federally subsidized, apartments and housing units. Twenty-eight percent of them are set aside for the elderly or handicapped.
All together, these units account for 4 percent of the region’s 142,049 total dwellings.
Thirty-nine percent of the subsidized units are in Lee County, and of those, 73 percent are in Tupelo.
In a city of 15,371 total dwellings, more than a tenth are set aside for those living below the poverty line.
Other cities, too, have high percentages of low-income housing compared to their total dwellings: Nearly 13 percent of all housing in Corinth is government subsidized; it’s more than 14 percent in Okolona; and it’s 16.5 percent in Aberdeen.
All together, about half the tenants in subsidized housing regionwide are minorities. That ratio rises in Tupelo and Lee County, where minorities account for 80 and 70 percent, respectively, of HUD-assisted families.
The average length of stay for tenants in subsidized housing is two years, said Onita Golden of the Iuka Housing Authority, which owns and operates 76 low-income public units. The program is meant a temporary safety net to help folks get back on their feet.
“They are good people,” Golden explained. “They are just down on their luck.”
Much of Tupelo’s publicly and privately owned subsidized housing was built in the 1970s and 1980s.
And though city leaders have proposed a moratorium on vouchers, they’ve made no mention of a similar ban on new construction.
But housing assistance programs also benefit the communities hosting them. Additional residents boost cities’ population counts, which means access to more federal dollars.
The cities also collect property tax from private property owners who accept vouchers or receive government subsidizes.
And this past year, they indirectly benefited from the more than $6.1 million in federal stimulus money awarded to the region’s housing authorities. It paid for renovations to their units.
The various projects created an estimated 27 jobs regionwide, according to HUD.
For Carter, though, the benefits of a housing assistance program are more tangible: It allows him to live in a decent home that he otherwise couldn’t afford. Not because he’s lazy or low-class. But because he is permanently disabled.
“I want to work,” Carter said. “But I can’t. I don’t know what I’d do without this program.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.