In the years that the low-income housing structure known as Ralston Towers has made headlines for resident deaths, city code violations, negligent ownership and, most recently, deplorable conditions, one question has always cropped up: Why do the residents continue to stay there if conditions are so bad?
The simple answer is that for most, they don’t have another option.
The Ralston is owned by a private New Jersey-based company known as PF Holdings. The company has a Project-Based Section 8 Housing Assistance Payments contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.
Under this contract, HUD issues vouchers and pays the Ralston the difference between what the low-income residents can afford and the approved rent.
Residents at the Ralston have vouchers specifically for that property, and those vouchers are not portable, meaning they can’t be used at another Section 8-approved housing unit within the community.
What other options are available?
Portable Section 8 vouchers are issued through the Housing Authority of Columbus, Georgia.
Through the use of vouchers called Housing Choice Vouchers, low-income families can rent homes, duplexes, trailers or apartments in the city and the housing authority will subsidize the resident’s rent, so long as the landlord has been approved by the housing authority.
In that way, families have some freedom to choose where they live.
In theory, the residents of the Ralston could apply for Section 8 housing through the housing authority, or for another form of voucher or public housing. But the wait for some of those properties can be anywhere from months to years.
The wait list for the Housing Choice Voucher is currently closed, according to the housing authority’s website. All other wait lists are open.
That’s the heart of the issue for Ralston residents — unless they can get a different kind of voucher, they’re stuck. And because many of the residents are physically disabled, the Ralston serves as an accessible option for wheelchairs and other mobility aids that other housing options might not provide.
So what happens if the Ralston shuts down?
After years of failed city inspections and complaints from residents but no recourse from HUD, the department inspected the Ralston in July and issued a failing grade.
A letter dated Aug. 1 notified Ralston owners their payments contract was at risk unless they brought the building up to HUD standards. The letter stated that issues observed during the inspection included a “leaking central water supply, sharp edges throughout the site, bulging and buckling ceilings” as well as damaged hardware, locks, walls, sinks and toilets.
The owners have until October 1 to remedy the situation. If not, some 200 residents could be out on the street.
Len Williams, chief executive officer at the Housing Authority of Columbus, said HUD has been in contact with the housing authority over the past few months in the event that the contract be revoked or the property fell into foreclosure.
“My understanding is that (HUD) will issue vouchers for the housing authority and then HUD will send in a relocation team in to work with the housing authority and, more importantly, work with the residents to see that they find other housing,” Williams said. “Residents would be able to go out on the private market and find housing. The housing authority then inspects the property to make sure it meets quality standards and then we do a rent comparison to make sure the rates are reasonable.”
But the large volume of residents at the Ralston and the large wait lists in Columbus could make that a lengthy process.
“We’re talking about a lot of residents, so I would suspect it would take a number of months to successfully relocate all of them,” Williams said.