On May 17, in Washington, DC, the Housing and Insurance Subcommittee of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee held a hearing about homlessness. Columbus was well represented at the hearing by Ann Bischoff, CEO of Star House. At the invitation of Congressman Steve Stivers, Huckleberry House executive director Becky Westerfelt submitted a letter of testimony to the hearing. The text of Becky’s letter follows. It focuses on one part of H.R. 1661, the “Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act of 2017” that would positively affect Huck House youth: student occupancy rules. Should the bill become law, youth will no longer have to choose between thriving or merely getting by.
The Honorable Sean Duffy
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
Re: Housing and Insurance Subcommittee Hearing 05/17/2018
Dear Chairman Duffy,
My name is Becky Westerfelt, and I am the Executive Director of Huckleberry House in Columbus, Ohio. Huckleberry House provides services including shelter and transitional living housing to homeless and runaway youth. Thank you for this hearing to consider how we can best address homelessness. I wish you could spend a day at Huckleberry House to see the very real and life-changing results of programs supported by you and your colleagues.
So often the barriers youth face as they try to establish themselves are complicated interactions between poverty, abuse and mental health problems. For those of us who work with these young people, we understand that there are no quick fixes for any of those problems let alone how each of those issues exasperate the others. What we do know is that solutions must be persistent. Parents understand that trying and failing are important components to our children’s success. The same is true for our country’s vulnerable youth. We also understand that making an investment in our young people is money and time well-spent. I think we would all agree that interrupting someone’s homeless career at 19 would be a key strategy if we are to see long-term solutions for homelessness in our country.
But there is something we could fix tomorrow that will remove one barrier – the Student Rule of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. Currently, residents of housing funded by the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) cannot be full-time students unless they meet certain exceptions. The exceptions are:
- There must be at least one household member who is not a full time student in the household in order to qualify for the tax credit program,
- A resident on TANF (temporary assistance for needy families),
- Single parents,
- People in re-training programs, or
- Has been in the foster care system within the past 6 years.
However, the student rule provides no exception for people who are currently or were recently homeless, including youth. Because of this, homeless youth may lose access to LIHTC housing if they go to school full-time. Alternatively, if they choose to attend school part-time in order to keep their LIHTC housing eligibility, these students may lose access to grants, loans, and scholarships that are limited to full-time students. One of the most critical skills, and a significant focus of the Huckleberry House, is that our youth achieve an education and break the generational cycle of homelessness. Forcing homeless youth to choose between school and housing is not in their best interest or ours.
H.R. 1661 corrects this problem. The student rule has very real and disheartening consequences. Two years ago we had two youth who were finishing our Transitional Living Program. Neither met the exemptions so had to choose between school and housing. Both were bright and hard-working. One chose school and went into a fair market apartment that she couldn’t afford. She kept taking classes at the local community college, but lost her apartment to become homeless again. She hasn’t finished school yet because she continues to be unstable in her housing which causes stress and uncertainty. Although she has worked through this entire process, she does not make enough to rent without LIHTC housing as an option. The other chose housing. He quit school and works several low-paying jobs. His dreams for his career have been supplanted by survival. He recently told me that he’s losing hope for a better life. Both of these young people bear the weight of this policy.
Right now Huckleberry House is working with a developer to build permanent supportive housing using the LIHTC. Already we have begun to strategize about how to address the student rule. While it is true that some youth needing this housing will fall under the other exemptions, we are frustrated that a youth who was homeless might not qualify. This is not a “what if” situation. We work with youth right now who will not qualify for LIHTC housing. Our agency values education at every level of our organization. In fact our Board of Directors has its own scholarship program to support youth coming through our programs. We make this commitment because we know that finishing high school or having some post-high school education can make all the difference.
H.R. 1661 includes “an unaccompanied youth” or a “homeless child or youth” in the list of exceptions. This is a common sense change that will remove a needless barrier between a homeless youth and self-sufficiency. Please consider supporting and passing this important legislation. Every year that goes by without this change creates another group of homeless youth forced to choose between thriving or merely getting by. We can do better.
Becky Westerfelt, MSW