LIVE OAK — Homeless, three kids, everything she owned in the back of her truck, Tawanna Hines found herself at the Live Oak Housing Authority for the third time.
Vickie Hõgg, the Authority housing manager, had mixed emotions seeing Hines again. The last time they'd seen one another, the 28-year-old Hines was moving out to live with her second husband.
“I kind of hoped not to see her again, but once I did, the first thing I said to her was that I want to see the kids,” Hõgg said.
A week after Hines returned, she brought her oldest son to the front office to see Hõgg. He walked up to Hõgg and asked if she was the person who blessed them with a home.
“That right there makes my job worth it,” Hõgg said with tears in her eyes. “You know, when our system works for people like Hines.”
And Hõgg isn’t alone in her conviction.
Housing authority workers across the region said government housing gives people who are struggling to stay afloat financially a safe place to live until they get on their feet and can move on.
But across the country, the state of affordable housing — especially housing funded by the government — is in constant flux.
Each new presidential administration brings changes to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that funds public housing. HUD’s budget has been whittled away in the past decade, and Donald Trump’s newest budget proposal includes even deeper cuts.
Additionally, public housing is in the middle of the ever-raging battle regarding one question: How much government assistance is too much?
Many, such as Hõgg, see public housing as one of the few lifelines for the large portion of Americans who are languishing in poverty. Many others see public housing as one example of government enabling people to “ride the train” of a bloated and costly welfare system.
In the SunLight Project coverage area — Live Oak, Jasper and Mayo, Fla., and Dalton, Valdosta, Thomasville, Tifton, Milledgeville and Moultrie, Ga., along with the surrounding counties — public housing is packed full, and most housing authorities have long waiting lists of families. There is only one public housing location in Lafayette County and no low-income housing available in Hamilton County.
HUD sets income limits on public housing, so only people who make below a certain amount are eligible. Rent for most tenants is 30 percent of their income, so it could be $50 or $400.
Right now there are no time limits on public housing, meaning people can stay as long as they want. But that could change as President Trump and his pick for HUD secretary, Ben Carson, settle into their new jobs and take a closer look at how the government helps its citizens put a roof over their heads.
One Mother’s Journey
Hines is currently living in public housing while taking online classes at North Florida Community College. She is working on finishing her associate of arts degree to become a full-time teacher for Suwannee County.
She graduated Suwannee High School in 2007 and married right out of school. After two kids and a failed marriage, she moved out of the house and in with her parents.
She and her two young boys lived with her mother, father and older brother in a three-bedroom home. She was sharing a single bedroom with her sons when her mother suggested the housing authority as an option.
Her mother had lived in affordable housing when Hines was a little girl and knew how helpful it could be in a difficult situation.
“I needed to gain my independence,” Hines said. “But most important was giving my kids a stable living environment.”
After about six months on the waiting list and thorough background checks, the housing authority accepted her. She put her kids into their rooms with their own beds and began working toward a normal environment.
Hines started working in home health care and taking classes to get her certified nursing assistance license. When she received her CNA, she worked two jobs in health care before leaving the housing authority for Lake City, Fla.
“It was really hard,” she said. “I didn’t have any family there, no support system.”
She struggled to make car payments and rent. When she ran out of money, she had no other option but to move back to Live Oak and into affordable housing again.
This time, she worked two jobs to raise money and moved out when she met her second husband.
After three years with him and a third child, Hines divorced a second time and wound up homeless.
Hines was again forced to live with her parents, but this time with three kids in a single room. It didn’t take long for her to be accepted again into the housing authority.
But many are still waiting to get in. The Housing Authority of Live Oak, where the rent ranges from $250 to $589, has been at full capacity for three years, with a waiting list of close to 100 people/families.
Some have been on the list for four years, waiting to get into one of the authority’s 103 units, which are all single-family homes.
The waiting list is mainly single mothers with multiple jobs, living with family or out of a car, said Scott Stephens, executive director of the Housing Authority of Live Oak.
“They wait it out,” Stephens said. “It’s all they can do.”
Hõgg said it’s “heartbreaking” to have to turn people away, many of whom are in desperate need.
Stephens is currently working with the city on a block grant that he hopes will lead to 60 new units.
Before Keith Mixon died, he and other city officials met Stephens to discuss the city’s housing problem.
“That was one of Keith’s biggest push, which was housing,” Stephen said. “We discussed that Live Oak is 650 percent behind what it needs in housing.”
This means that if Live Oak had 650 available units today, Stephens could rent them all out this month, he said. That got the wheels turning for Mixon. He came to Stephens later and asked what Stephens could do with the baseball fields on Hale Park that the city wasn’t using.
Stephens put together a proposal and presented it to the city council. This time without Mixon present. In his proposal, Stephens said he could fit 60 units on the land.
The project is now moving forward, he said. He is waiting for the city to conduct a phase one environmental study on the land, which will include background checks of the land to make sure there is nothing hazardous buried underground.
Once that is done, a survey will be done to know exactly how much land is there to be used. Stephens said he is pretty certain he is going to get the land for affordable housing, but there are some who are nervous about the project.
“I think some people think it’s going to be public housing,” Stephens said. “It’s going to be affordable housing, which means people will be paying 70 to 80 percent of the annual income toward housing. It will be higher ranged income, like Village Oaks.”
Public housing is much more subsidized, where people pay around 30 percent of their annual income for housing.
When Stephens gets the land, he will then pick a developer who will get the funding for the project. He said the project will probably cost around $5 million, and the housing would eventually pay back that funding.
“Once the land is mine, I’ll find the financing,” Stephens said. “The only thing I’m worried about right now is getting the land in my name. After that, there shouldn’t be too many blocks.”
Is there enough affordable housing?
Even outside of government housing, affordable living spaces can be hard to find.
One Thomasville real estate broker said affordable housing in Thomas County is a thing of the past.
Richard Cook, whose company, Cook Real Estate Agency, handles home sales, rentals and property management, said building codes are the same for a $30,000 house and a $300,000 house.
"So you cannot afford to keep the price low if you have the same costs involved," Cook said, adding Thomas County does not have enough affordable housing.
Local rent averages from $350 a month on the low end to $1,500 on the high end, Cook said. Rent, he said, can reach $2,000 to $2,200 and higher.
Cook said if $10,000 is spent on a $30,000 house and the same amount is spent on a $120,000 house, money can be recouped on the more expensive dwelling, but it will "take forever" to get it back on the less expensive house.
Affordable housing is more likely to happen with a residence built from the ground up, he said. Cook said a newly constructed house will not require the costly repairs of an older place.
Mike House, Thomasville Housing Authority manager, said there are 254 public housing units across five sites in Thomas County, with about 1,000 tenants. The authority is at 100 percent occupancy and, of course, it has a waiting list.
The average monthly rent is $258. If a tenant loses his or her job, rent is reduced to $50 a month. The full rent charge will resume three months after a new job is found.
Units have a monthly utilities allowance based on the number of bedrooms in the apartment. If use is above the allowed amount, the authority is reimbursed for the overage. Residents who do not exceed the allowed amount do not pay a utilities bill.
In Tifton, the rental options are plenty, said Houston Shultz, the city’s environmental management director.
The city contains 1,240 apartments for rent in 38 apartment complexes; five complexes have openings right now. The city also has at least 671 houses and mobile homes currently for rent.
Rent in Tifton/Tift County ranges from $225 to $1,300. The median rent is $586.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 42 percent of the county’s 16,403 housing units are rentals.
The county’s median household income is $37,653, and at least 27 percent of the population is living at or below the poverty line.
Tifton’s Housing Authority has 383 units across five sites for families and seniors or disabled individuals.
Because of the volume of applicants, there is a lengthy waiting list. It is difficult to predict the time between applying and receiving a housing offer. It can sometimes take years.
Income limits, which determine eligibility for public housing, differ by county and are determined yearly by HUD. They are broken down by three categories: low, very low and extremely low.
In Tift, for one person, a low income is considered $25,850 or below. The very low limit is $16,150 and extremely low is $11,770.
For a family of four, the limits are $36,900 for low income and $23,050 for very low and extremely low income.
Nearby, Moultrie has more than enough low-income housing, said Michael Boatwright, executive director of the Moultrie Housing Authority.
"Although we have a waiting list, I think it is more of a representation of how our properties are managed than it is the fact that there isn't enough in the county,” he said. “I don't believe some of the other providers of low-income housing stay 100 percent occupied and (don't) have as lengthy of a waiting list as we sometimes do.”
The Housing Authority is indeed maxed out, with people occupying 328 apartments of one to five bedrooms. Most are in developments located in either northwest or southeast portions of the city.
Monthly rent ranges from $50 to $608. The average rent for a family of four is $199 per month.
For 2017, income limits for Moultrie’s public housing is $26,050 for one person, $29,800 for a two-person household, and $37,200 for a family of four.
Moultrie’s Housing Authority also oversees 138 units that are not government subsidized and don't come with income-based rents. The apartments are located throughout Colquitt County as well as in Moultrie.
It also manages the 26-unit Rainwater Village of two- to four-bedroom apartments. The apartments originally housed migrant farm workers through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the Housing Authority was granted a waiver allowing it to rent to low-income applicants who are not farm workers.
In addition to Housing Authority properties, there are 247 apartments with rents based on income, and some 200 HUD Section 8 apartments for which the federal government pays some or all of the rent directly to the apartment managers.
In Moultrie, nearly one in six housing units — 983, out of 6,178 counted in the last U.S. Census — are considered low-income. This number also includes 712 apartments that are not rent-assisted dwellings but are deemed affordable-housing.
Affordable, however, may be in the eye of the beholder.
In 2015, more than 54 percent of renters in Colquitt County paid 35 percent or more of their income toward rent, according to U.S. Census figures. Another 9.4 percent paid 30 to 34.9 percent toward monthly rent.
A general rule of thumb is that housing costs should not exceed 30 percent of annual income.
Median gross rent is $606 in Moultrie and $589 in the county.
Many clients at Colquitt County Community Action Council who seek housing assistance can see rents eat up half or more of their monthly income, said agency CEO Randy Weldon.
To pay a $400 monthly rent with a minimum-wage job paying $7.25 an hour, the renter would have to have 43 hours per week to pay that amount and not spend more than 30 percent of income on housing, Weldon said.
Put the rent at $500, and that minimum-wage earner would need to work 54 hours to avoid overspending on housing.
"We find that most of our clients coming to us are paying more — some over half," Weldon said, “especially if you have an elderly person who is disabled who is living on Social Security.”
A person with $600 could have a rent of $300 or more, leaving the rest to meet needs for food, utilities and health-care costs, he said.
The agency has several programs that provide rental assistance, from those that receive federal dollars to one that is funded completely with local money. And some privately owned rental properties may be cheap on price but lacking in livability.
"We need more (housing) that's affordable in the area," Weldon said. "A lot of the time you look at it (and) wonder, ‘Do people pay $400 to live in that (substandard) property?’”
Do we need public housing?
People often ask Mark Stalvey why public housing is necessary.
Stalvey is the executive director of the Valdosta Housing Authority.
He said people on the lower-end of the income scale — the working poor — may not have access to decent homes if it weren’t for public housing.
“They have to have somewhere to live. They have to have a good, decent, safe place to live. And that’s what I feel like our mission is, to provide that for people,” Stalvey said.
“If we were not here, we would be back to the pre-1950s and ‘60s to where we had folks living in squalor and less than sanitary housing conditions. We don’t want to move backwards.
“At the same time, we don’t have private developers creating what we have here on the very affordable end. That’s the niche that we fill.”
The Valdosta Housing Authority manages 534 units in the city. The units are a mix of townhouse, duplexes and single-family homes spread across numerous sites.
Rent ranges from just a few dollars to about $450.
The average income of tenants is $10,000, and the average stay is four years.
Because there are no time limits placed on public housing, the leases are open-ended. The authority hovers near full capacity, and like others, it has a robust waiting list.
“When you move in, you can be here for a month or you can be here for the rest of your life,” Stalvey said.
Some tenants — especially the elderly and disabled — have been there for decades and will be staying until they die, Stalvey said. Others, such as working families, come in and stay until they get a stable job and save up enough money to move out.
In that sense, public housing works, Stalvey said, in helping struggling workers get back on their feet and on their way to a better life.
But he said time limits on government housing — which are possible with the new presidential administration — could serve to prevent people from taking advantage of the system.
“People are going to ride the train as long as they can. I feel like in order to help people become productive and self-sufficient, sometimes you have to put limits on things — tough love, if you will. Otherwise, people are going to continue on the path that they’re on,” Stalvey said.
He added that getting people to be self-sufficient is hard when the amount a family can receive from welfare is not much less than what a job pays.
The average annual income for a working family of two in Valdosta public housing is about $12,000-14,000. A similar family could possibly receive up to $9,000 a year in welfare checks, Stalvey said.
“So there’s only about a $3,000 gap between those who are on welfare and those who are working (low-paying), minimum-wage jobs. There’s not a lot of incentive for people when you have such a high welfare amount and such low wage amounts,” Stalvey said.
“We’ve got to be more creative in how we do that and get them more self-sufficient.”
Stalvey also said HUD may initiate more stringent income restrictions for public housing in the future, along with more budget cuts.
But cuts to public housing have been a reality for some time now; Stalvey said his budget for physical improvements — the “stick and bricks” fund — has been cut almost in half during the past decade.
The cuts have forced the authority to focus on the bare necessities.
“We’re being forced to do a lot more with a lot less on that end,” Stalvey said.
As public housing is constantly questioned and reworked from Washington, individuals and families in local communities are finding solace and hope in the government service.
‘The Sound of Security’
“I never gave up, but I can’t even fathom what my life would be like if the housing authority wasn’t there to help me when things were at their hardest,” Tawanna Hines said of the struggles she faced while drifting in and out of public housing.
She and her children now live in the same public housing area where she grew up as a child.
“I know several girls my age who live in a shelter. For me, the housing authority has been like another parent.
“When I was little, I lived in housing authority and had my own room in this same neighborhood,” Hines said. “The only time I had my own room, when I was a kid, was with housing authority. And the first thing I notice every time I come back is the sound of central heat and air.
“It’s the sound of security.”
The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Alan Mauldin, Eve Guevara, Patti Dozier, Billy Hobbs and Charles Oliver, along with the writers, Thomas Lynn and team leader John Stephen. To contact the team, email email@example.com.