Arkansas House approves work requirement for public housing recipients

Opponents say tenants and housing authorities would struggle to comply

By: - February 6, 2023 7:30 pm
Rep. Aaron Pilkington, Rep. Kendon Underwood

State Rep. Kendon Underwood (R-Cave Springs), right, talks with Rep. Aaron Pilkington (R-Knoxville) on the House floor. (Photo Courtesy of the Arkansas House)

A proposed Arkansas law that would require able-bodied adults to work or volunteer part-time to receive federal housing assistance will head to the Senate after passing the House in a party-line vote Monday.

Adults between the ages 19 and 64, except people with disabilities and participants in drug and alcohol treatment programs, would have to work or volunteer 20 hours per week or be participating in a workforce training program to qualify for housing assistance.

Rep. Kendon Underwood (R-Cave Springs), the sponsor of House Bill 1196, said the policy would shorten public housing waiting lists, fill open jobs throughout the state and reserve housing assistance for people in the most dire need of stable shelter. He made the same statements to the House City, County and Local Affairs Committee on Wednesday before panel members voted to pass the bill.

“We’re tasked with being responsible for taxpayer money, and these resources are for people who truly need these resources,” Underwood said. “If you can work, you should work, and by getting those people to work, that gets [them] out of government dependency.”

All 18 House Democrats voted against the bill, while 79 of the 82 House Republicans voted for it. One Republican voted present, one did not vote and one was absent.

Local vs federal

Public housing benefits are administered by local agencies that receive federal funding and must follow U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations. Housing authority directors told the Arkansas Advocate they do not believe the state has a place in the administration of housing assistance.

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock) asked Underwood on the House floor if the state has any jurisdiction over federally-funded local entities.

Underwood responded that HUD has the authority to waive any of its rules at the request of local housing authorities. The bill would require housing authorities to seek HUD approval “to the extent necessary to carry out” the work requirement.

In a Friday email, a HUD spokesperson said the department declined to comment on proposed legislation.

Legal and administrative concerns

McCullough asked Underwood if he spoke to any Arkansas housing authority directors while drafting the bill, and Underwood said he did not.

The proposed law is “state overreach” since local control allows housing authorities “the flexibility to address specific needs within their communities,” McCullough said when speaking against the bill.

“Public housing access is already incredibly scarce,” she said. “This bill would create an additional barrier for entry for low-income Arkansans.”

McCullough added that the bill would conflict with federal law that already requires adult residents of public housing to work or volunteer for eight hours per month. A housing authority can choose not to renew a lease if the tenant does not comply but cannot terminate a lease before it expires. House Bill 1196 would require housing authorities to terminate lease agreements within 60 days of discovering noncompliance unless the tenant starts working again.

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This conflict would create a liability for housing authorities and put their federal charters at risk if they do not follow federal law closely enough, Kendall Lewellen, an attorney with the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, told the committee last week.

She also said in an interview that the bill could put an administrative burden on housing authorities since they would be required by law to monitor tenants for compliance with the 20-hour work mandate.

Rep. Roger Lynch (R-Lonoke) had the same concern Monday. He said the executive director of the Lonoke County Housing Authority contacted him to tell him that the “unfunded mandate” in House Bill 1196 would be a problem for the agency.

Lynch asked Underwood if the bill provided for additional funding for housing authorities to do this extra work.

Underwood said housing authorities “should be able to comply” with the law because they are already required to prioritize applicants who are up to date on their child support payments, a law that resulted from a bill he sponsored in 2021.

Lynch proceeded to vote present on the bill.

“Plenty doable”

Rep. Nicole Clowney (D-Fayetteville) asked Underwood what might happen to public housing residents, especially families with children, if the bill becomes law and they lose access to housing assistance.

Underwood replied that he believes the work requirement is “very reasonable” and might not result in anyone losing access to housing.

He and Rep. David Ray (R-Maumelle) both said the bill should help fill some of the roughly 60,000 unfilled jobs in Arkansas.

Ray said Arkansas should require employment as a prerequisite for many forms of government assistance.

“I think our society needs more policies that promote work, not less,” he said.

Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) said she and Ray agreed on the value of work, but she added that some parts of Arkansas have very few job opportunities, which would make it difficult for people who need housing aid to comply with a work requirement.

“I am keenly aware that there are areas that are so desolate economically,” Flowers said. “That doesn’t exist in some places, and I know it’s hard to believe, but I’ve seen it, and that actually is a reality in a couple parts of my district.”

The bill currently does not exempt parents of children older than 4 months and does not provide assistance with childcare. However, Underwood said he and Sen. Ben Gilmore (R-Crossett), the bill’s Senate sponsor, will amend the bill to raise the age to 5 years.

“Once [the kids] are in school, it should be plenty doable to get that work requirement,” Underwood said.

Arkansas currently requires adult recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, to work unless they are over 50 years of age or have dependent children.

The same stipulations applied to a Medicaid work requirement that Arkansas implemented in 2018. The program, called Arkansas Works, cut 18,000 people from coverage before being struck down by a federal judge in 2019.

Arkansas received a new Medicaid waiver in December 2021 to revamp the program, now called ARHOME. It does not include a work requirement.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.