Oswego mayor wants to reduce housing vouchers to cut poverty

May 24, 2017

The level of poverty in Oswego is more than double the national rate with 29 percent of residents living below the federal threshold.

That's the finding of a study the city recently commissioned as part of its poverty reduction initiative. And, Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow says that's only the tip of the iceberg.

"It shows another 18 percent may be above that threshold but struggle to make ends meet," Barlow said. "So if you combine those two numbers you’re almost near 50 percent, and that’s a problem."

Oswego is one of 16 cities participating in the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative, a New York-funded program uniting private and public organizations in the fight against poverty. But Barlow is moving ahead with his own plan.

"This focuses more on folks looking for hand up, not a hand out," said Billy Barlow, Oswego mayor.

He wants to reduce the city's federally funded Housing and Urban Development (HUD) vouchers by a third. Currently, the city subsidizes rent for about 456 people. The idea is to wean people off of the program by connecting them with work and job training services. Barlow also wants to change the housing voucher application to reward those who are involved in a workforce development or education training program as a way to incentivize people to improve their situation.

Barlow says it's about giving a hand up, not a hand out. 

"Hopefully we can elevate them out of the program," Barlow said. "Generational poverty is what we want to avoid."

Barlow's administration is currently crafting the details of the plan to send to the federal HUD office for approval.

Reaction

According to the poverty study, only 4 percent of the city's housing voucher recipients hold a full-time job. The study says that "confirms the sense that work is the best path out of poverty."

But Oswego County Opportunities Executive Director Diane Cooper-Currier, who is a steering committee member of the Oswego Poverty Reduction Initiative Task Force, says that concept is positive, but it only works if the infrastructure is in place.

Oswego County has one of the worst unemployment rates in the state, at 6.1 percent in April when New York state was at 4.3 percent. And even if these housing voucher recipients are able to find work, the poverty study shows that Oswego's rental rates are extremely high. It says the median monthly rent was $714 from 2011-2015 in the city, an amount that nearly half of the city's renters found unaffordable.

Cooper-Currier says those are issues the task force is working to address. But Melissa Marrone with the Housing and Homeless Coalition of Central New York says without that infrastructure in place, she thinks this policy is misguided.

"This is clearly not going to be a public policy that a local government should adopt -- especially if the local government wants to see homelessness decrease in their community," said Melissa Marrone of the Housing and Homeless Coalition.

"The jobs in Oswego need to exist for that to occur and you really have to make sure people can maintain their housing afterward," Marrone said. "We do a point in time count in Oswego County and what we found is there are actual families with young children living outdoors in places not meant for human habitation in January. This is clearly not going to be the public policy that a local government should adopt -- especially if the local government wants to see homelessness decrease in their community."

There is not a homeless shelter in Oswego County, which is partially why Cooper-Currier says Oswego County Opportunities struggles to find people safe, affordable housing in the city and county.

But Barlow says his plan would not threaten anyone. 

"If we have people on HUD and they can’t find jobs, it won’t be yanked away," Barlow said. 

In fact, Barlow says job availability is partially why he is pursuing the plan.

"That stems from the idea I had after winning the election, touring the larger employers of this community and meeting with their personnel departments," Barlow said. "They said a lot of times they have job openings, but they don’t have people locally or from the city to fill those jobs. So, I would like to have a larger skilled workforce and prepare people with the basic skills they need to search for a job, get a job and keep a job."

Other goals

Through this housing voucher reform, Barlow is also hoping to stiffen regulations and code enforcement for the properties that receive HUD funding as a way to hold landlords accountable to basic living standards. Barlow said 279 inspections of these properties were conducted from January through March and "73% of the inspected units fail their initial inspection, meaning they do not meet the bare minimum Housing Quality Standards set forth by the Federal Government."

Barlow says whittling down the number of vouchers the city administers will to free up manpower and resources that the HUD program takes from the city's Community Development Office. Half of the department's eight employees work on this program, but the federal government does pay the city to run it -- $315,000 in the past year. 

Still, the city may not have a choice about curtailing its housing voucher program. President Donald Trump's recently unveiled budget is calling for steep cuts to HUD.