City mulls Section 8 background checks

In an effort to shorten a lengthy waiting list for federal affordable housing vouchers, Glendale is considering running criminal background checks on 4,400 people who currently receive the help to make sure they still comply with the rules.

The one-time check could find violators, thus making room for the more than 5,700 qualified people on the wait list.

“We’ve got people on the waiting list who are law-abiding and deserving, and then we have people who choose to break the law,” Mayor Laura Friedman said Tuesday.

Her City Council colleagues on the Housing Authority made it clear that they’d approve the background-check proposal when it comes back next month for a final vote.

Glendale faces low resident turnover and insufficient funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for its affordable housing program, known as Section 8. The city last accepted applications for the waiting list in 2001 and has not taken anyone off the list in the past year, officials reported.

The federal money provides vouchers of between $50 and $700 a month for extremely low- and very-low-income families to subsidize rent in the private market. Income restrictions range from $17,950 for a single person to $42,700 for a family of four.

In 2002, HUD required local housing agencies to block criminals from the Section 8 program. Since then, applicants for Glendale’s program have undergone a criminal background check, but not after getting onto the voucher program — unless officials receive crime tips from local police, newspapers, sex-offender websites or other sources.

Those accepted before 2002 never had a background check.

Since 2002, the city has kicked out 32 of 147 voucher recipients for committing crimes. Some criminal activities, such as driving under the influence or driving without a license, have led to counseling rather than immediate eviction.

Deputy Housing Director Peter Zovak said concerns about serious crimes recently spurred the idea for a fresh round of screenings. The one-time checks could begin in January. Those who have committed violent crimes could be dropped from the program.

City officials say they plan to look at each case individually according to federal housing rules. If one family member commits a crime, the whole family is liable, said Carolina Seigler, senior community development supervisor for the city.

That sparked some concern among City Council members.

“We should take the bad guys out and open up spaces for the worthy families, but we have to be fair in all this,” said Councilman Ara Najarian.

Staff also plans to purge the voucher list by clearing those who don’t respond to city correspondence and asking about 120 people who receive vouchers from other agencies to voluntarily exit.

The city plans to spend between $130,000 and $150,000 out of $3.7 million in housing reserves on the crime checks and mailing purge.

Maria Palomares, an attorney with nonprofit Neighborhood Legal Services, said rather than adding the extra layer of policing, the city should dip into its reserves to meet housing needs.

“It’s very alarming to see something like this would come down the pipeline,” Palomares said. “It could be very detrimental.”

But Zovak said it is not good practice to use savings for ongoing operations, such as spending more on housing assistance.

Councilman Rafi Manoukian cautioned housing officials to not take the criminal reviews lightly.

“We’re relegating them to homelessness essentially, or something else,” Manoukian said. “It’s a very touchy situation.”

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