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Emerging Tenant Unfriendly Practices

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Emerging potentially tenant unfriendly practices of public housing commissions and private HUD housing owners, and ways to respond to them

by Jim Schaafsma, MPLP

The issue:  increasing difficulty in getting access to information from PHA

Background     

There is no comprehensive federal law saying that public housing agencies (PHA) must readily and freely provide documents from a tenant file to a tenant or her representative.

However, in the case of evictions or tenant grievances, the PHA must give the tenant an opportunity to examine any PHA documents that are "directly relevant" to the matter.  See 24 CFR 966.4(m) (evictions); 966.56(b)(1) (grievances).

Also, there is a state FOIA that applies to PHAs (meet definition of “public body”, MCL 125.234(1)), and a federal FOIA, at 5 USC 552; 24 CFR 15 (HUD regulation); see also Community Legal Service v. HUD, saying CLS eligible for FOIA fee waiver, 5 USC 552(a)(4)(A)(iii); 24 CFR 15.110(h) because disclosure of requested information was in “public interest” because “likely to contribute significantly to public understanding” of HUD activities.  405 F.Supp.2d 553 (2005 E.D.Pa.)    

Some ways the issues presents itself:

  • Some PHAs are now insisting upon a FOIA request before releasing information. 

            Response:  As noted above, a blanket policy of refusing to provide access to documents without a FOIA request would violate the federal regs.  Also forcing an advocate to go the FOIA route would be more administratively burdensome for it, likely more adversarial (perhaps resulting in litigation), and more costly for it (because under the Michigan FOIA, to which a PHA is subject as a “public body”, at MCL 15.234(1), persons who are getting public assistance or indigent are exempt from the first $20.00 of a FOIA fee).

  • Some PHAs claim that certain documents are not subject to FOIA.

            Response:  Considering the limited scope of the FOIA exemptions list (MCL 15.243), it’s hard to imagine any document in a tenant file that wouldn't be subject to FOIA, including the HUD 50058 (which, not that there should be any reason to, could be gotten under federal FOIA/Privacy Act from HUD itself).

 
The issue:  Poorly written (if at all) and enforced, and overbroad trespass policies that infringe upon resident rights to have guests (for background, see Responding to Landlord Use of a Trespass Policy That Interferes with Guest Visits)


Responses
:

  • Affirmative or defensive (e.g. eviction) litigation (raising constitutional, statutory, or common law claims 
  • Involvement in PHA planning process (see 24 CFR 903) or other contact with PHA/owner to identify alternatives to no trespass policy (e.g. community policing)

(Acknowledgement to Sylvia Brennan, Debra Gardner, & Hong Tran, No Trespassing:  Balancing Public Housing Resident Safety and the Right to Have Guests, 10/05 HJN Conference)

  • PHA lease/policy amendment (24 CFR 966.3 and .5) and grievance procedure (24 CFR 966)


The issue:  retroactive/aggressive enforcement of Public Housing community service requirement

 

Background    This requirement, at 42 USC 1437j and 24 CFR 960.600, mandates that non-exempt public housing residents perform 8 hours of community service or economic self-sufficiency (ESS) activities each month.  Exemptions cover most public housing residents, including

  • seniors (62 and above);
  • disabled persons and their primary caretakers;
  • those engaged in “work activities” (as broadly defined by the Social Security Act, 42 USC 607(d)
  • those exempt from state welfare program work requirements (e.g. Work First)
  • households that receive most TANF related benefits (FIP in Michigan) and have not been determined to be noncompliant with any attending work requirements.

 
HUD has become more aggressive in monitoring whether PHAs enforce this requirement.  As a result, many PHAs that had been lax in enforcing the requirement are becoming more vigilant about it.  Some are pursuing cases of alleged noncompliance from several years ago.   

 
Responses

  1. ensure that exemptions are broadly defined and properly applied (see, e.g. NHLP advocates’ guide:  http://www.nhlp.org/html/pubhsg/community_services_materials/Commy%20Svc%20Guide.Final2%20pdf.pdf;
  2. be sure that PHAs are adhering to statutory language (e.g. regarding “work activity” minimum hours or doubling up hours in a month);
  3. in cases of attempted retroactive enforcement, verify that the PHA had sent written notice of alleged noncompliance to the tenant for the year in question; also consider laches argument
  4. verify that the lease contains accurate information about the requirement, that the PHA provided notice of the requirement apart from the lease, and also that any change in lease/policy met the lease/policy (42 CFR 966.3 and .5) and PHA plan (24 CFR 903.21) amendment requirements.