Region & State

Arkansas House approves work requirement for public housing recipients

Opponents say tenants, housing authorities would struggle to comply

By TESS VRBIN | Arkansas Advocate

A proposed Arkansas law that would require able-bodied adults to work or volunteer part time to receive federal housing assistance will head to the Senate after passing the House in a party-line vote Monday.

Adults between the ages 19 and 64, except people with disabilities and participants in drug and alcohol treatment programs, would have to work or volunteer 20 hours per week or be participating in a workforce training program to qualify for housing assistance.

Rep. Kendon Underwood (R-Cave Springs), the bill’s sponsor, said the policy would shorten public housing waiting lists, fill open jobs throughout the state and reserve housing assistance for people in the most dire need of stable shelter. He made the same statements to the House City, County and Local Affairs Committee on Wednesday before panel members voted to pass the bill.

State Rep. Kendon Underwood (R-Cave Springs), right, talks with Rep. Aaron Pilkington (R-Knoxville) on the House floor. | Photo Courtesy of the Arkansas House

“We’re tasked with being responsible for taxpayer money, and these resources are for people who truly need these resources,” Underwood said. “If you can work, you should work, and by getting those people to work, that gets [them] out of government dependency.”

All 18 House Democrats voted against the bill, while 79 of the 82 House Republicans voted for it. One Republican voted present, one did not vote and one was absent.

Local vs federal

Public housing benefits are administered by local agencies that receive federal funding and must follow U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations. Housing authority directors told the Arkansas Advocate they do not believe the state has a place in the administration of housing assistance.

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock) asked Underwood on the House floor if the state has any jurisdiction over federally-funded local entities.

Underwood responded that HUD has the authority to waive any of its rules at the request of local housing authorities. The bill would require housing authorities to seek HUD approval “to the extent necessary to carry out” the work requirement.

In a Friday email, a HUD spokesperson said the department declined to comment on proposed legislation.

Legal and administrative concerns

McCullough asked Underwood if he spoke to any Arkansas housing authority directors while drafting the bill, and Underwood said he did not.

The proposed law is “state overreach” since local control allows housing authorities “the flexibility to address specific needs within their communities,” McCullough said when speaking against the bill.

“Public housing access is already incredibly scarce,” she said. “This bill would create an additional barrier for entry for low-income Arkansans.”

McCullough added that the bill would conflict with federal law that already requires adult residents of public housing to work or volunteer for eight hours per month. A housing authority can choose not to renew a lease if the tenant does not comply but cannot terminate a lease before it expires. House Bill 1196 would require housing authorities to terminate lease agreements within 60 days of discovering noncompliance unless the tenant starts working again.

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