COLUMBIA - Sitting on the porch of his home on Trinity Place, Jeffrey Johnson thinks back to a piece of advice that has willed him through the rough periods of his life.
“My mother and father always said ‘Swallow your pride,’” Johnson said. “It’s how you make it.”
Johnson is resident representative on the Columbia Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, and for the past four years, he has been the voice of his neighbors and friends as they carve out lives for themselves in public housing.
It’s a difficult life in which even the simplest positive developments, such as a pay raise, can complicate things.
Right now, public housing residents pay rent that is equal to 30 percent of their adjusted income. That means that an increase in income means an increase in rent.
Johnson has a problem with that.
“It’s like saying public housing is for a person who has nothing. No car, no assets, no income,” Johnson said. “They’re just trying to survive. They’re just trying to make it.”
To improve their chances, the housing authority’s latest annual plan lowers the rent ceiling in an effort to promote self sufficiency among its residents. Those residents would also be eligible for special savings accounts, where residents’ deposits would be matched by up to $2,000 in grant money, which could be used to further their education, start a business or buy a home.
“People have interrelated needs,” said Phil Steinhaus, CEO of the Columbia Housing Authority. “If basic needs are met and people can get a meal and have a roof over their heads, then we can work on other barriers to self-sufficiency.”
Steinhaus said that during an annual review of housing authority policy, board members realized that once rent reached between $350 and $400, residents could find more bang for their buck outside of public housing. The new policy would probably only affect a small percentage of tenants who are paying market rent or more to live in public housing.
With a three- to six-month wait for an apartment in Columbia public housing, the new policy would help some tenants purchase a home or move to the private rental market and open up units for new residents who need lower-cost housing. Other residents would have incentive to remain in public housing a bit longer than they usually would, giving them time to save for a down payment or closing costs on a house.
“By lowering the ceiling amount, families might be more inclined to remain where they are to build assets, subsequently lowering our turnover rate, lessening the moving cost for our maintenance and public housing staff, and stabilizing our neighborhoods,” said Vikki Pauley, director of housing programs.
Johnson puts it a bit more succinctly. “If you’ve got a steady job,” he said, “why the hell would you live in this? You should go on the market and find a unit with a dishwasher and a washer and dryer.”
The policy change has already been approved by the housing authority board as part of its annual plan, and was submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Pauley said the federal agency will likely sign off on the plan in the near future and that policy documents would be finalized in the coming months.
Home ownership is not only an important goal for the housing authority, but for its residents as well. The house on Trinity has been good to Johnson and his family, but after six years, he’s thinking about moving on. Having found a passion for speaking up for people who might not otherwise have a voice, Johnson is volunteering with AmeriCorps/Vista, where he is helping newly released inmates make the transition back into the community.
Johnson is hoping to someday buy a home and start his own business, one in which the skills he’s learned helping other public housing residents can be shared with many others.
It may seem far off but he can already see the golden letters on the door.
“Jeff’s Mentor Advocacy Enterprise,” he said. “There’s a great need within the community. I see myself helping people.”