PMHA operating as normally as possible in face of D.C. shutdown

By Tom Corrigan -

Unless there was some last-minute deal which had not been made public as of this writing Tuesday afternoon, the partial shutdown of the federal government is, as you read this, dragging on into its second month.

Although it is technically a Scioto County agency, the Portsmouth Metropolitan Housing Authority works closely with the federal department of Housing and Urban Development field office in Cleveland, said PMHA Executive Director Peggy Rice.

That field office been closed since the partial shutdown began.

“When you make a phone call and no one’s home, it’s tough to get the job done,” Rice said.

However, Rice added, for now anyway, the organization she heads is holding its own. No workers have been sent home or furloughed and all employees are receiving paychecks.

“Our goal is to serve our residents and keep the lights on,” Rice said.

According to Rice, PMHA operates 866 housing units. They subsidize another 600 units through HUD’s basic Section 8 housing choice voucher program, which Rice said is largely PMHA’s bread and butter. She said, of course, many of her residents are getting nervous as the government shut down continues.

“People are concerned, they are looking for some reassurances,” Rice said.

The voucher program is funded through February, according to Rice. However, PMHA has been informed no rent money will be paid in March. At the same time, she said, for some people there is absolutely no reason to panic, no reason to worry about ending up in the street.

The voucher program works as follows. An applicant is screened for financial eligibility. They must then find a landlord willing to accept Section 8 funding. Inspections are done and some other red tape is cut through. Once an agreement is reached between the tenant, the landlord and PMHA, using HUD money, the latter normally pays part of the rent, while the tenant pays a share as well. Rice said once a landlord signs an agreement with PMHA, that contract remains in place whether or not HUD money is flowing so long as the tenant continues to pay his or her share of what is owed.

Rice said persons who may face the most immediate potential problems are those whose contracts are set to expire. According to Rice , PMHA has chosen not to ink any new contracts until the shut down ends and funding sources are better identified. She said PMHA does not want to run the risk of approving new contracts only to later find out no funding is available.

Rice expressed one other area of immediate concern, namely for persons who rely on disability, and/ or similar program funds to pay their portion of Section 8 rents. At this point, she said, it’s not clear whether all those funds will continue to flow.

In the case of one related program, SNAP, which primarily supplies food stamp-like payments, dollars for February already have been provided. No further money is authorized at this time. The county has issued a statement urging SNAP recipients to remember they must spread out their available funds at least through the end of next month.

All in all, PMHA serves about 3,300 people. Rice said the organization is still in the process of evaluating who might be affected most immediately by the government shutdown and planning whatever steps they can take to minimize any problems.

“Every situation is going to be a little different,” Rice continued.

The HUD website is essentially shut down, but the first page offers a link marked “HUD contingency plans.” The link takes the visitor to a 90-page document attempting to spell out HUD’s plan in case of a government shutdown. On the face of it, the plan contains no guarantees and seemingly few reassurances for Section 8 tenants worried about their rent.

“Our goal is to safeguard them all,” Rice said.

As a government shutdown rolls on, Rice contends PMHA is doing all it can to continue operating as much as possible. They have foregone or greatly reduced routine maintenance and capital projects on their various residential holdings. As no new supplies are on their way, Rice said officials must make what is currently in the PMHA warehouse last as long as possible.

“We will utilize the stock in our warehouse down to next to nothing if needed,” Rice said.

They also have sent out letters to some Section 8 tenants attempting to explain the situation as much as is understood.

Finally, the organization also is taking what steps they can to be ready to operate full speed again when the government eventually begins operating once more. For example, while the Cleveland HUD offices are closed, PMHA has left numerous voice mails so their organization will be in line for return phone calls when the government reopens. Rice is confident that will happen eventually.

“We’re tightening our belts like everybody else… But we can’t stay on the job like this indefinitely.” She added at some point the politicians in Washington D.C., “are just going to have to do their jobs.”

By Tom Corrigan