When Oceanside city staff suspended a program for low-income families, it did so without consulting the Housing Commission or the City Council.
Now those officials are questioning that decision.
Oceanside had a Family Self-Sufficiency program since 1993. It’s offered to low-income families that are already receiving rental assistance.
Family Self-Sufficiency is a savings incentive program for low-income families that have Section 8 housing vouchers or live in HUD-assisted housing. It’s often referred to as HUD’s “best kept secret” – HUD is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
For families receiving rental assistance, their rent is often based on income – as their income increases, so does their rent. This structure can often discourage families from seeking a higher income because they will end up paying more in rent and may lose their other benefits in the process, like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, also known as food stamps.
With Family Self-Sufficiency, program participants enter a five-year contract with their housing authority – in this case, Oceanside’s housing authority is the Oceanside Community Development Commission.
As the family’s income increases, and subsequently their rent, Oceanside deposits the increased rental charges that a family pays into a savings account.
In other words, the difference of the rent the family pays when entering the program and the increased rent that would be charged as the family’s income increases is set aside for the family to access after the five years is up.
Meanwhile, Oceanside’s Family Self-Sufficiency coordinator provides case management to help families meet certain requirements and reach educational and career goals, while also managing their account.
The savings build during their time in the program, and once families “graduate,” they can use the money to put a down payment on a home, go to college, start a business or whatever else they choose to achieve self-sufficiency.
At a Housing Commission meeting last month, an Oceanside resident named Claudia Munoz, a graduate of the program, spoke about her experience.
Because of the program, Munoz said, she stopped receiving rental assistance and is working on purchasing her first home.
According to city staff, 34 families have successfully graduated from the program since 2012 and the average disbursement is $12,675 per family.
At the Jan. 24 meeting, Oceanside’s Housing and Neighborhood Services Department revealed it suspended the program, meaning they would finish serving the remaining 37 families that are currently enrolled in it, but would not be enrolling any new families.
The maximum capacity of the program is 50 families.
“I’m really conflicted in understanding why … it didn’t come through the Housing Commission before a decision to intend to terminate was made,” Housing Commissioner Beatriz Palmer said.
Housing and Neighborhood Services Director Leilani Hines responded that the program was not terminated, just suspended.
Hines told Voice of San Diego that the decision to suspend the program didn’t go through the Housing Commission or City Council because staff thought it was an operational issue, not a program issue that needed to go through those channels.
She said their main reasons for suspending the program were staffing shortages within the department, as well as costs associated with the program. She also said HUD approved the suspension of the program based on the department’s financial and capacity issues.
For many of the cities that have a Family Self-Sufficiency program, HUD pays for part, or all of the costs associated with having one or more program coordinators, depending on the size of the program.
In Oceanside’s case, HUD was covering 60 percent of the cost of the city’s one full-time coordinator. Oceanside’s Housing and Neighborhood Services Department had to cover the rest, around $59,000 last year.
This was one of the reasons they decided to suspend the program, Hines said. However, that funding from HUD stopped at the beginning of this year because the program was suspended, and the Family Self-Sufficiency Coordinator is still working with the 37 remaining participants.
But instead of Oceanside’s housing department having to cover only 40 percent of the coordinator’s salary, they now have to cover 100 percent of it, or about $149,500.
That tradeoff was worth it, Hines said, because the way staff saw it, this option would give them the flexibility of having the coordinator work in other areas of the city’s housing department and Housing Choice Voucher Program – when the Family Self-Sufficiency program is active, the coordinator is only allowed to work on that program.
Because the department is facing staffing shortages, like many other cities, they need that flexibility, she said.
However, the coordinator has yet to be assigned to any other duties or roles within the housing department, Hines said.
She also told Voice the new rules that HUD announced for the program last year were a factor in their decision. The department didn’t have the capacity to quickly learn and implement the new rules and needed time to do that, she said.
“It’s a lot being thrown to staff in local governments to try to figure out how do we maneuver around all these new rules and regulations while at the same time our demand for any program, whether it’s affordable housing or the Housing Choice Voucher program is growing,” Hines said.
The Housing Commissioners, however, agreed that these issues can and should be worked through to keep the Family Self-Sufficiency program going.
“Figure it out. Figure out how you’re going to make it happen,” the Commission’s Chairperson Inez Williams said. “What you’re presenting here to us tonight is all these things and all these excuses about why you can’t make it happen, and my thought process is figure it out.”
The commission ultimately decided to discuss reinstating the program later this month.
Oceanside Mayor Esther Sanchez told Voice via email that the program should not have been suspended without City Council approval and should have gone to the Housing Commission prior to any action.
“The Housing Commission is the only commission required by law and is there to ensure proper management of housing funds as well as to ensure the city meets its affordable housing needs,” Sanchez said.
The next Housing Commission meeting will be Feb. 28.