U.S. Housing and Urban Development directors for public housing in Tennessee and the Johnson City Housing Authority have agreed to delay for six months a 400 percent flat rate rent increase that was to take effect Jan. 1 and to renew negotiations for a smaller rent hike to begin in July.
Richard McClain, JCHA’s chief operating officer, said the 400 percent increase previously mandated by HUD would have made the JCHA’s flat-rate rents the highest in the region. He said the housing authority is hopeful continued negotiations with HUD will result in an increase more in line with other housing authorities in the area that have flat rate rents 200 percent to 300 percent higher than the JCHA.
Since the Housing Authority announced the 400 percent increase on Nov. 15, McClain said 470 of JCHA’s 741 public housing tenants have modified their lease agreements to drop the flat-rate rent option in favor of rental payments set at 30 percent of their total household income. With HUD’s agreement to delay the increase, McClain said all JCHA tenants, including those who modified their leases, will be allowed to continue paying their current flat rate rents until the new increase becomes effective July 1.
“We’re happy for our tenants and glad that they will get a chance to adjust their finances and be prepared for this increase at the middle of year,” he said.
In November, the Housing Authority notified residents that flat rate rents for efficiency apartments with no bedrooms would increase from between $70 and $73 to $365 per month, one-bedroom apartments would increase from between $74 and $79 to $441 per month; two bedrooms would go from between $116 to $133 to $546 per month; three bedrooms would rise from between $163 to $193 to $678 per month; four bedrooms would jump from between $206 and $245 to $846 per month; and five-bedroom apartments would go from between $251 and $301 to $998 per month.
McClain said at that time the increases were in line with the market value of more than 500 non-housing development Section 8 Housing Voucher properties managed by the JCHA that range from $650 to $750 per month for a two-bedroom home and do not include utilities.
According to McClain, JCHA board members voted to postpone the increase Tuesday morning based on an agreement with Charles Barnett, HUD’s public housing director for Tennessee, and Edward Ellis, director of HUD’s field office in Knoxville, and re-open negotiations on the amount of the increase. The vote followed an appearance by the HUD officials and JCHA board members before the Johnson City Commission at an agenda review meeting Monday evening in which commissioners voiced concern about the increase’s impact on public housing residents.
Tony Seaton, an attorney representing a group of JCHA tenants who attended both meetings, said in addition to the JCHA board’s vote to delay the rent increase, the board also voted to conduct a fair market study of comparable rental properties in the area as requested by HUD.
After observing both the City Commission and JCHA board meetings, Seaton said it appeared HUD’s mandate for a 400 percent increase had been part of “a game of political football” in which HUD used “the residents as the football” to bring the Housing Authority to the table. In the end, Seaton said, it took intervention from U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, to renew negotiations between the entities.
Seaton is assisting a group of JCHA tenants who sought help at the Washington County Bar Association’s free monthly clinic on Dec. 4. Seaton said he and McKeena Cox, an attorney with Legal Aid of East Tennessee’s Johnson City office who also is working on behalf of JCHA residents, said the residents include many low-income seniors who are “frightened to tears” the increase will leave them unable to purchase food or medicine.
While he and Cox discussed taking legal action on behalf of the tenants, Seaton said they decided to first address the matter with Roe. In response, he said Roe’s office contacted him Monday morning and advised him Barnett and Ellis would address the commission and the Housing Authority board meetings.
With the concessions by HUD and the JCHA board, Seaton said his hope is that “HUD will do what it says” and the July 1 increase will be significantly less than 400 percent.
“What I tried to get them to understand is it doesn’t matter whether you double or triple the flat rates, it’s still going to be devastating for these renters,” Seaton said. “I was told there are people who live in the Housing Authority who are earning $60,000 a year. I told them I haven’t talked to anyone who earns $60,000 a year. I have talked to people who earn $600 a month.”