Deep in the heart of rural, southeast Texas, a family living in public housing meant for low-income families has a total household income of $285,971 a year.
In Olney, Texas — near Wichita Falls — a family receiving taxpayer subsidies to pay rent makes $227,709, while another family residing in public housing in Pineland on the eastern edge of the state makes $184,499.
Those are the most extreme examples of Texas families living in public housing even though their incomes far exceed the caps to qualify for discounted rent. The pattern is prevalent across Texas, which is the state with the second-highest number of “over-income” families living in public housing, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
A recent audit of HUD’s public housing program for 2014 and 2015 found more than 25,000 families living in public housing nationwide that made more than the income limit to qualify for rent subsidies. Of those, 1,056 live in Texas.
Many of those families make just a few hundred dollars more than the income limit, which is set by HUD depending on an area's median income. But about 41 percent of over-income families in Texas make $10,000 or more above the income limit, while almost one in five over-income families make $20,000 or more above the caps, according to a state-specific breakdown of audit data obtained by The Texas Tribune.
The over-income families in Texas make up a small portion of the 44,700 families in public housing. But the scrutiny of the program comes at a time when waiting lists are growing longer as the state faces a shortage of public housing.
Over-income families are allowed to stay in public housing because they must only meet the income limit at the time they apply for assistance. And HUD policy does not limit how long families may remain once their income exceeds this limit.
In light of the audit’s finding, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said in a statement, the department is working to encourage housing authorities to establish policies that would reduce the number of over-income families.
“We are directly engaged in conversations with the housing authorities identified within the audit as having residents who were over the income limit,” Brown said. “We anticipate issuing additional guidance on the topic this fall and working with local housing authorities to provide greater opportunity for more families.”
In Texas, the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso has the highest number of over-income families with 82 households. The El Paso family with the largest disparity between their income limit — based on the number of people in a household — made $79,716 a year, $43,566 over the income limit.
The Houston Housing Authority came in second with 46 over-income families. The highest over-income family in Houston made $94,923 a year — $52,273 over the income limit.
In early September, HUD officials sent letters to local housing authorities reiterating the discretion they have over housing policies, but encouraging them to adopt policies that would limit “the most egregious over-income cases from continuing to reside in public housing.”
Officials with the El Paso housing authority did not respond to a request for comment.
In Houston, Brian Gage, a senior policy advisor for the housing authority, described the audit as a “disappointing misunderstanding” of the city's program. As families’ incomes grow, they pay more rent and the housing authority requires less federal subsidies to operate the program, Gage said.
“As long as you’re admitted into the program, we weren’t going to forcibly evict families from their home because they increased their income incrementally over time,” Gage said, adding that the federal government has allowed housing authorities to push for mixed-income integration in public housing and not penalize families “for being successful.”
The HUD audit found that most over-income families earned more than the income limit for more than a year and occupied units “while many families were waiting for public housing assistance.”
Low-income housing advocates say the value of keeping over-income families in public housing is more complex than the numbers suggest.
Many times a family will temporarily take in an additional member whose earnings boost the household income, they said. Some housing authorities allow police officers to live within a public housing development as a crime deterrent, said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, which helps poor Texans obtain low-income housing.
Housing advocates generally favor having mixed-income families in public housing if possible.
“Public housing and any form of housing assistance is not like food stamps. You don’t get it because you qualify for it. You only get it if you qualify for it and there’s an available unit,” Henneberger said. “We favor the notion of economic integration of public housing, but they also have to provide in another location affordable housing for the poor and not to lose the few units that are still out there.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story used figures for the income of families in Olney, Texas, and Pineland, Texas, that reflected how much they made above the income cap to qualify for public housing instead of their total income.