Investigators arrest Section 8 cheating suspects

Georgia investigators started arresting about 80 people around the state Wednesday for allegedly lying their way into federally funded Section 8 housing.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan said 65 people were arrested by Wednesday evening and more will follow in coming weeks. The announcement of further arrests was intended as a threat toward Section 8 cheaters across the state.

Keenan invited those who have erred on their Section 8 forms to come forward, since they could receive leniency. Those found cheating would have to leave the housing and pay back what they owe, but they might not face prosecution, he said.

"A person who receives housing benefits that they are not entitled to steals taxpayer money," Keenan said.

The arrest sweeps targeted people who have lied about their income and the number of people in their household in order to obtain a subsidy that can pay upwards of three quarters of their rent. Some of those arrested said they earn less money than they actually do. Some did not admit to having a second job or acknowledge they had additional people living in the home who added to the household income.

Many have been bilking the system for years, officials said.

The crackdown showed the program tightening the screening of Section 8 tenants, said Edward Jennings Jr., the southeast regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which assisted in the investigation.

"We are creating a culture of intolerance" for such activity, Jennings said. He also offered a toll-free phone number for people to report cheaters (800-347-3735).

The investigation, called Operation Clean House, focused on the 149 Georgia counties where Section 8 housing is managed by the state Department of Community Affairs. Those counties serve over 15,000 families and provide $100 million in federal subsidies a year. The average recipient family has two to three members and receives a subsidy of between $600 to $1,000 a month, according to the DCA.

The area does not cover 10 other Georgia counties, including several metro Atlanta areas such as Cobb, Fulton and the city of Atlanta, which all have their own housing authorities responsible for ensuring tenants qualify for assistance. Many of the state's Section 8 tenants live in these metro Atlanta counties and Jennings said similar crackdowns are planned in these areas.

Arrests were made Wednesday in the metro counties of Coweta, Henry, Rockdale and Paulding as well as other counties around the state. A few cases are pending further action in Gwinnett County, the GBI said.

Getting tough on cheaters is important since the harsh economy is increasing the need for Section 8, as well as the desperation of those willing to lie to stay in the housing, officials said.

Last month, 30,000 people descended on East Point to apply for a spot on the Section 8 waiting list. The East Point waiting list had not been opened in eight years and 62 people were injured as people pushed in line, fought over applications and collapsed after hours in the heat.

Dennis Williams Jr., assistant commissioner at the state Department of Community Affairs, which also participated in the investigation, said the program must ensure that the people who receive the housing subsidy "are eligible to participate."

Those people arrested will be charged with state felonies of offering false statements and theft by taking. Officials estimate the 80 or so people who have been arrested or are being sought ripped off the system for $1.1 million. Prosecutors will also attempt to have those people pay their share of the money.

"Section 8 can be managed better ... better screening," said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), who considers herself a supporter of the program but who wants greater accountability.

Investigators tapped into data of the Labor Department, HUD and the state Department of Family and Children Services in order to check the veracity of tenants' claims. Through that, they were able to check incomes and whether a tenant was receiving some form of public assistance.

Section 8 provides federal money to help people who are poor, elderly and disabled find decent housing. The program has been used in metro Atlanta to replace congregated public housing.

Eligibility is based on family size and income, which in most instances cannot be more than half of the median income for the area.

"We have zero tolerance for [Section 8] fraud and are committed to aggressively working to identify and help prosecute any individuals that would seek to defraud or abuse this essential program," Jennings said.