HUD re-examines how it distributes vouchers; warns of scams

WASHINGTON -- A week after a crush of 30,000 people seeking housing assistance vouchers overwhelmed an Atlanta-area shopping center, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is making sure agencies nationwide learn from the incident.

HUD is reviewing its policies for distributing the vouchers and is advising public housing officials nationally to do a better job of preparing for bigger-than-expected crowds.

Meanwhile, HUD's Atlanta office said Friday it has received "a couple" of reports of scam artists trying to sell fake housing vouchers after apparently recognizing the desperate demand for them.

"Individuals and families need to be on the alert to this scam and ensure that they do not pay for these fraudulent housing vouchers," said Edward Jennings, director of HUD's Southeast region. Witnesses to illegal voucher sales should call the HUD inspector general's office at 1-800-347-3735, Jennings said.

More than 60 people were injured near the East Point Housing Authority on Aug. 11 after the agency opened up 455 spots on a waiting list for Section 8 housing assistance vouchers that poor and disabled recipients can use to subsidize rent in private housing.

Pictures and video of people pushing and shoving in the hot August heat to get applications were broadcast nationally, putting a face on the nation's economic and affordable housing crisis.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sandra Henriquez, assistant HUD secretary for public and Indian housing, said the East Point situation was unusual, but that demand for housing assistance will likely continue to outstrip supply -- especially as long as the economy continues to founder.

"What happened [in East Point] is really a sign of the times," she said. "People really do need some deeply affordable rental assistance ... and people need it badly."

Henriquez said her office is encouraging housing authorities nationwide to view the East Point chaos as a lesson.

HUD is now warning local housing officials to double or triple their estimates of demand, she said. It also is encouraging housing officials to do a better job of notifying voucher seekers that they don't need to show up on a certain day or time to get applications, and to make better use of the Internet and local housing advocacy groups to distribute applications.

"There are ways to mitigate against that [kind of] crush in the future," Henriquez said.

Currently, nearly 2.2 million low-income families participate in the Section 8 program nationwide -- the most ever. HUD and the Obama administration are asking for $19.6 billion to fund the program in 2011 -- an increase of $1.4 billion from 2010.

Critics say the East Point situation was illustrative of a bloated government program gone awry.

At the Libertarian-influenced Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Vice President Benita Dodd said the program "perpetuates a cycle of poverty, helplessness and dependence."

Henriquez said critics underestimate the consequences of not helping to provide housing for the needy.

"I think people need to think about the unintended consequences of homelessness -- greater health care costs, instability in education, greater numbers of people living on the street," she said.

Making changes to how Section 8 vouchers are distributed could help prevent future incidents like the one at East Point -- but it won't solve an underlying problem of supply and demand, affordable housing advocates say.

Still, HUD should be applauded for working closer with local housing authorities and taking other steps to better manage the voucher program,  said Jim Grow, deputy director of the National Housing Law Project, a nonprofit advocacy group in California.

"If HUD can support them by providing technical assistance about how they can do their jobs better, that has a very positive impact," he said.

"Because no housing authority in their right mind wants to have this kind of fiasco again."

Staff writers Dan Raley, Craig Schneider, Christopher Quinn and Ernie Suggs contributed to this article.