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Getting paid in public housing; poorest forced to wait

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Update:  December 2, 2013

Since our Community Watchdog follow-up investigation into high income public housing last month, one public housing unit's income in
Elizabethton has dropped drastically.

Over the last several weeks, the projected income of the Elizabethton Housing and Development Agency household in question has dropped by nearly $60,000.

As we reported in November, the projected income started at $76,000 then after one of the people moved out went down to $44,000.

Since our report, Director Kelly Geagley tells us another person who lives in that unit went from two jobs to one, bringing the total projected income for the unit down to $18,446.


They started with nothing but over time, thanks to the government's help, became successful and now they make enough money to buy their own home, but they don't.

Instead, they get some government services and take up public housing units. Meanwhile, the poorest of the poor are forced to wait on lengthy waiting lists and it's not just a problem in the Tri-Cities.

You may remember our special Community Watchdog report back in July. It revealed people making a lot of money living in public housing. That investigation found the majority of people who made the most money in the area's largest housing authorities lived in the Johnson City Housing Authority. Seven people there took home more than $50,000 last year and one made almost $77,000.

The original report sparked Congressman Phil Roe to call on the inspector general to open a federal investigation to see if the problem is widespread. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Inspector General is still reviewing that request.

In the meantime, we've found out the problem is even more widespread than we originally thought.

It is also a problem in the smaller Elizabethton Housing and Development Authority. A public records request revealed a family of three with a projected annual income of $76,604 lived in a public housing unit there.

While they lived comfortably, more than 120 others are on a waiting list to move into units there: people who are jobless, homeless, divorced, elderly or disabled.

"They need housing today and we're saying, 'Okay, based on your bedroom size it may be six months to a year before there's a vacant unit available,'" Executive Director Kelly Geagley said. "What happens to those people?"

Not only are they taking up space, Geagley says they're also receiving some government benefits like free garbage pickup, a discounted power bill and free water.

While the average family at the housing authority makes $9,404, 47 others households are considered above the federal poverty guidelines, including two one-person units. Those two people each make more than $40,000, the records request revealed.

At the same time, Geagley says a family of six is trying to make it on $26,608.

"I think that would be a good thing (if the federal government took a closer look)," Geagley said. "I would like to see maybe a time frame, months or so, if you've got steady income and you're above a certain income then you have 'X' amount of days to vacate, because there are more needy people that have zero income"

Johnson City Housing Authority Executive Director Richard McClain also supports a federal investigation. He says the problem goes well beyond the Tri-Cities.

"I think it's nationwide," McClain said. "I'm not against putting a cap on income levels in public housing at all."

At the least, it's an issue across Tennessee.

Nashville's Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency reports 26 households that make more than $50,000, including five with incomes above $60,000, four that make more than $70,000 and two families of four that make $80,000 plus.

Metropolitan Development and Housing Authority
Income  --  Household Size

  • $81,883 -- 4 people
  • $80,117 -- 4 people
  • $77,994 -- 3 people
  • $73,653 -- 3 people
  • $72,639 -- 6 people
  • $72,399 -- 5 people
  • $68,560 -- 4 people
  • $64,302 -- 4 people
  • $63,315 -- 3 people
  • $62,074 -- 2 people
  • $60,907 -- 3 people
  • $58,632 -- 3 people
  • $56,202 -- 5 people
  • $54,927 -- 2 people
  • $54,510 -- 2 people
  • $53,404 -- 3 people
  • $52,542 -- 3 people
  • $52,367 -- 2 people
  • $52,041 -- 3 people
  • $51,919 -- 3 people
  • $51,576 -- 1 person
  • $51,532 -- 4 people
  • $50,932 -- 4 people
  • $50,633 -- 3 people
  • $50,598 -- 3 people
  • $50,163 -- 5 people

Meanwhile, Chattanooga Housing Authority has four families that make more than $50,000 including two in the $60,000-plus range.

Chattanooga Housing Authority
Income -- Household Size

  • $67,844 -- 3 people
  • $62,502 -- 3 people
  • $56,642 -- 3 people
  • $54,641 -- 5 people
  • $48,060 -- 4 people
  • $43,892 -- 4 people
  • $41,842 -- 4 people
  • $41,233 -- 2 people
  • $41,030 -- 4 people
  • $40,420 -- 2 people

Over at Knoxville's Community Development Corporation there is one family that makes more than $50,000 and another that takes home $66,000.

Knoxville Community Development Corporation
Income Household Size

  • $66,584 -- 3 people
  • $53,742 -- 2 people

Memphis Housing Authority has a family of two that makes more than $50,000.

Memphis Housing Authority
*Income Household Size

  • $50,388, 2 people

Back in Elizabethton, Geagley says public housing was not created to be permanent.

"I think they just get comfortable," Geagley said.

Instead, he says it's supposed to help in emergencies and ultimately transition people into regular homes. He says luckily that is now happening with the authority's wealthiest family that made more than $76,000. Geagley says one of the three people who lived in that unit has since moved out, bringing the household's income down to $44,000.

"When people leave for the right reasons, 'Hey, I found a house or I bettered myself,' we're happy for them," Geagley said.

We also reviewed the incomes in Abingdon and Rogersville. Overall, they were much lower.

Rogersville Housing Authority said it had just one household above $40,000 and four others above $30,000.

Meanwhile, Abingdon Redevelopment and Housing Authority reported its highest paid households both make around $34,000.

“We’re still waiting to hear back from the IG, but this report only underscores the need to look at these programs," Congressman Phil Roe (R), TN-1st District said. "It is clear this is a problem throughout the state of Tennessee, which means this is likely an issue for other states as well. I will continue to look for ways to ensure housing programs are available and reserved for those truly in need and I look forward to hearing back from the Inspector General.”

Copyright 2013 WJHL. All rights reserved. 

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