Hurricane Harvey took everything from Vanessa: furniture, beds, her car. Even the walls of her Houston apartment fell after the flood. An undocumented Mexican mother who prefers to remain anonymous given her citizenship status, she ended up temporarily living in a friend’s empty home. She slept on the floor with her husband, who is a U.S. citizen, and four kids, three of whom were born in America.
By the time they finally got their own place and paid two months of rent as a deposit, they were broke. Vanessa borrowed money to buy the beds for the children, but she and her husband had to wait three months before they could afford their own bed.
And they had to do something that they'd always avoided: get food stamps for the children.
“But only for a little bit. We are always worried that it would affect our future, our migratory status,” Vanessa says, even though her U.S. citizen kids are entitled to these benefits. “But we only asked for stamps. Never help for housing.”
Her fears, common among immigrants, were prescient. Had she applied for housing assistance, she would now be at risk of being evicted, since the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is changing its rules so that if a household has even one undocumented member, the family won’t qualify for public housing units or rent vouchers. On top of that, the administration wants to make it easier to deny citizenship or visas to people that have applied for welfare or could be perceived as likely to do so in the future, by tightening the definition of what's called the public charge.
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“There is an affordable housing crisis in this country, and we need to make certain our scarce public resources help those who are legally entitled to it,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement earlier this year.
According to HUD, a household has to wait an average of 26 months to get housing assistance. And the department has expressed in statements that the new rule excluding mixed-status families will “help trim the waitlists.”
But, according to advocates and Texas housing officials, the change would do little to shorten wait times since most undocumented families don’t qualify for the assistance and mixed-status families don’t typically apply.
“The few that do it, mostly it’s through their kids, who are U.S. citizens,” said María Sosa, a tenant organizer with the immigrant group FIEL Houston. “It’s a lie to say that there are undocumented families receiving this kind of help and shows how much ignorance there is about this country’s policies.”
In Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, mixed-status families consist of 1% or less of those receiving housing assistance. In El Paso, such families make up 5% of those receiving assistance.
In its analysis, HUD said that between “$179 million to $210 million annually” would be transferred to citizens across the country that could benefit if mixed-status families weren’t receiving assistance. But that’s another idea that Texas housing officials criticize.
“The undocumented tenants don’t receive any benefits. The family gets its rents prorated based on how many documented tenants there are,” said Tory Gunsolley, president and CEO of the Houston Housing Authority. “If it is a two person household, and one of them is undocumented, they would be paying 50% full rent and then 50% discounted affordable rent.”
HUD declined requests for an interview. Conservative groups, though, support the proposed change.
“What this administration is doing is preserving these social welfare systems for Americans who may find themselves relying upon them at one time,” said Mike Howell, a senior advisor at The Heritage Foundation. “We need some reasonable common sense controls and that's all this is. It's not an extreme rule by any stretch of the imagination.”
"Wrong and mean-spirited"
Araceli Ramírez, who is part of a mixed-status family, remembers when her mother-in-law pushed her to get into public housing in Houston eight years ago.
“I moved in on a Thursday, and on the Monday they realized that I was undocumented,” she remembers.
She was told she could stay, but her rent would go up $500 because only the U.S. citizens in her family could have their rent subsidized. Without enough money to afford that, she ended up in a shelter for nine months.
Although the proposed new rule about possible use of benefits only applies to future visa applicants, the change in HUD’s requirements is different: It will be applied to everyone currently living in public housing or receiving section 8 rent vouchers. Mixed-status families will have to be evicted or will have to kick out their undocumented relatives.
“I think it is unconscionable to make the rule retroactive,” Gunsolley said. “I think it is wrong and mean-spirited. HUD is basically saying that the mixed-status families make waiting lists longer in detriment of citizens, and that’s simply not true.”
If the rule is applied as it has been planned, undocumented people living with citizens receiving assistance will have a period to provide proof of their immigration status.
“If they don’t provide the documentation, they will have to be removed from the household,” Gunsolley said. “This means that if you have two children who are U.S. citizens and one parent that isn’t, we won’t be able to keep the kids in the unit by themselves, so the whole family will be evicted.”
For low-income families or those with low credit scores, that could make finding another place to live more difficult.
“And eviction is a huge taint to someone’s record in Texas,” said Dr. Myriam Igoufe, vice president of policy development and research at Dallas Housing Authority. “Maybe we're going to have to think about policies surrounding eviction just to make sure that they don't double or triple suffer.”
Gunsolley said evictions can create financial instability for families — and hurt children academically.
“And while the number of people impacted in Houston is small compared to other cities, the impact on each of those families will be tremendous and awful,” he said.
Right now, HUD is in the process of reviewing more than 23,000 comments about the proposed rule. Houston and Austin’s housing authorities sent letters criticizing the measure. But many experts believe that they might not persuade officials from changing the proposed rule. There also could be legal challenges if the rule goes through.
HUD’s new rule might also violate privacy codes, according to Houston’s Housing Authority officials. A line in HUD’s proposal says that verifying the citizenship of all residents in subsidized households “would better facilitate locating such person and bringing any necessary administrative or legal actions.” That has some advocates and officials worried that HUD will turn information over to immigration officials or other federal agencies.
“In layman’s terms, HUD told us when they requested that we collect the information that it would only be for eligibility purposes. Now, it appears they are using that information to punish families,” Gunsolley says.
Sosa, the advocate for immigrant tenants thinks there’s a more sinister reasoning behind the rule change from an administration led by a president who has made racist comments about people of color.
“This is an attack against the migrant community and it is just a tactic so that migrants are even more afraid, even when they are trying to find a home.”