For One City’s Public Housing Work Requirements, Study Reveals High Compliance, Low Wages



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Work requirements for public assistance have recently attracted attention from the Trump administration and others.

Most of the roughly 5,200 residents subject to Chicago public housing work requirements in recent years were in compliance with that policy, but average wages for this group remained low and short of what would be needed for them to afford market-rate rent.

Those are among the findings in a report the Urban Institute released Tuesday about the Chicago Housing Authority’s work requirement program, which dates back to 2009.

The research comes as the Trump administration and other Republicans have shown interest in expanded work requirements for a variety of public assistance programs, including housing.

“The work requirement is being used to support people to make some improvements on the employment and income front,” said Diane Levy, one of the authors of the new study, as she discussed the work requirements for Chicago public housing residents.

"It’s a tool to help people make some gains," she added.

But “when it comes to gains big enough that one might start talking about achieving self sufficiency economically,” Levy says that the research suggests, “it doesn’t seem that it’s going to happen through these types of policies alone.”

Chicago’s program targets public housing residents 18- to 54-years old who are not disabled and who are not the primary caretaker of a child or other adult. It calls for them to either work or enroll in a school program for at least 20 hours a week.

The authors of the Urban Institute report found that of 30,364 Chicago Housing Authority residents in 2017, 5,232 were subject to the policy and about 94 percent of those people were in compliance.

Among those in compliance, over half, or 2,811 residents, were working or engaged in other activities that met the requirements. About one-quarter of the group, or 1,225, were in a “safe harbor” phase, which offers 90 days to find a job or other qualified activity.

Another 876 residents received exemptions, mostly based on disabilities. The remaining 320 people of the total 5,232 subject to the requirements were out of compliance.

The researchers found household-level average annual income per person increased to around $12,700 in 2017 from about $11,500 in 2010, after adjusting that sum for inflation into 2017 dollars.

But they weren’t able to parse out how much of the increase was due to the requirements, as opposed to other factors, like falling unemployment, or a city minimum wage increase.

Chicago Housing Authority staff and others involved in implementing the program indicated to the researchers that they did not anticipate the policy would lead to surging wages. “Having a work requirement is not for the goal of having people leave subsidized housing,” one staff member at the housing agency told them.

They added: “we have not seen people on a trajectory that would suggest that they are making enough money to pay market-rate rent. The goal is to create health in the family and health in the community—economic health and hope and things like that.”

The requirements in Chicago have not been used as an eviction tool, the researchers say. They also highlight a program the housing authority provides called FamilyWorks, through which residents can get help in areas like job searches and training program referrals.

A difficulty for some residents who are working, the report notes, is that they have jobs that are temporary, seasonal, or that provide limited benefits, often in the service sector.

Nationwide at least nine public housing agencies have work requirements in place under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Moving to Work” demonstration program. There are a total of about 3,000 housing authorities across the U.S.

Levy notes there could be other locations with work requirement programs that are achieving greater results in terms of people finding higher paying jobs or moving on from public housing, and that local labor market conditions could be a factor in whether this is so.

But research on housing work requirement programs and the outcomes they may or may not help achieve is limited. “There may be some place out there,” Levy said, “they figured something out and they’re seeing that it is having a big impact. We just don’t know.”

A full copy of the report can be found here.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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