Public housing work requirement bill wins Senate approval

By: - February 20, 2023 6:22 pm
The Arkansas Senate on Feb. 20, 2023, passed a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Ben Gilmore of Crossett (right) to create a work requirement for able-bodied recipients of public housing assistance. He's seen here earlier in the legislative session talking with Sen. Matt McKee (R-Pearcy).

The Arkansas Senate on Feb. 20, 2023, passed a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Ben Gilmore of Crossett (right) to create a work requirement for able-bodied recipients of public housing assistance. He’s seen here earlier in the legislative session talking with Sen. Matt McKee (R-Pearcy). (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Senate)

The Arkansas Senate approved legislation Monday that would require able-bodied adults to work, volunteer or train in order to receive public housing assistance.

Senators voted 28-5 to send House Bill 1196 back to the House for final consideration. The legislation would require any public housing agency in the state to require able-bodied recipients of housing assistance between 19 and 64 years of age to work, volunteer or participate in a work training program an average of 20 hours or more a week. People with disabilities, parents of children under 5 years old and participants in drug and alcohol treatment programs would be exempted.

The bill requires housing agencies, which are governed locally but receive federal funds, to seek approval from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to establish the work requirement. If HUD denies an agency’s initial application, the bill directs an agency to re-apply within two years.

Sen. Ben Gilmore (R-Crossett), the Senate sponsor of the bill, noted that a number of housing agencies in Texas and North Carolina, among other states, already demand similar activities of public housing recipients. He mentioned that housing authorities in those states are encouraging recipients to work through “the Biden administration’s Moving to Work program.”

Moving to Work is a HUD demonstration project that predates the election of Joe Biden as president. It began in 1996 with 39 public housing agencies authorized to participate, according to HUD’s website. Congress expanded the program in 2016, authorizing the participation of additional housing agencies. As of 2022, there were 126 participating agencies, including the Fayetteville Housing Authority, admitted to the program in 2021.

Sen. Fredrick Love (D-Mabelvale) said there’s already a volunteer requirement in place in the housing authority he oversees as Pulaski County community services director. 

Sen. Fred Love (D-Mabelvale)
Sen. Fred Love (D-Mabelvale)

“Two pieces [of the legislation] are very detrimental,” he said.

The provision that requires housing agencies to terminate public assistance within 60 days to those who don’t comply with the work requirement will have unintended consequences, he said.

“There are going to be a lot of homeless children,” Love said, because 60 days “is a short period.”

The other detrimental piece of the bill would be the additional workload needed to screen applicants and tenants to determine who is required to work and who is exempt and to create an “employability plan” for each able-bodied person receiving housing assistance.

“This is pretty much an unfunded mandate,” Love said. “This will negatively impact agencies.”

Work requirements “can be productive if coupled with job skills training, job search assistance or child care assistance, and if they’re not paired with those, they can be counterproductive,” said Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock).

“I don’t know if the employability plan or anything in the bill makes provision for helping people find a job, or helping them get trained for a job or helping them find childcare,” Tucker said.

Gilmore responded that many people who would fall under the bill’s requirements already are receiving some sort of public assistance or other benefits that would provide that type of support.

“This is a very broad standard that we’re asking,” he said. “I don’t think it’s overly burdensome.” 

He reminded senators that one purpose of the bill is “actually creating additional space [in public housing] for those who really need it, that are on a waiting list.”

Sen. Reginald Murdock (D-Marianna) asked Gilmore if college students are exempted from the work requirement, and Gilmore responded that they would be.

Sen. Reginald Murdock (D-Marianna)

“I don’t see school or education in the bill,” Murdock said later in the discussion. “I understand that’s your intent, but I don’t see it in the bill.”

Murdock ended up voting present while the other Senate Democrats — Tucker, Love, Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock, Greg Leding of Fayetteville and Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff — all voted no.

The bill passed the House on Feb. 6. It originally exempted parents with children under 4 months old and was amended Feb. 14 to raise the age to 5 years.

Housing authority directors told the Arkansas Advocate in January that they do not believe the state has a place in the local administration of federal housing assistance.


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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. He retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2020 after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years.