Dorothyann Mullen is worried about what will happen to Beaufort's working poor, elderly and disabled as sequestration and federal budget cuts mean fewer residents will receive assistance through the Beaufort Housing Authority.
"We'll have to find a way of helping those people," the authority's resident commissioner said. "They won't be able to live in Beaufort because the rent is so high here."
Mullen understands on a personal level. For a single mom who worked a variety of jobs to support her three children, it was a difficult decision to seek housing assistance after a divorce. But the 69-year-old is grateful today to live in one of the 293 public housing residences in Beaufort County.
"In Beaufort, at least when I was working, they didn't have any benefits or nothing like that," she said. "They paid us as cheap(ly) as they could afford. ... I had one child left at home, and I made the decision to go on housing because I really couldn't afford anything else."
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The Beaufort Housing Trust assists 2,204 people across the county, mainly through public housing or Sector 8 programs, said operations officer Angela Childers. Sector 8 provides a portion of the rent payment for people to live in private apartments.
Of those receiving housing assistance in the county, 21 percent are on Social Security, 59 percent are working, and 10 percent are on disability.
Recipients pay 30 percent of their income toward housing, and the average monthly housing voucher from the authority is about $512. The average family size is 2.53 people, and the average income is $14,003, Childers said.
"This is our most vulnerable population," she said, adding budget cuts have put the agency in "crisis mode." "These are the elderly, these are our disabled, these are our working families. We want to reduce the negative consequences for as many of our people as possible."
The operating fund for public housing is being cut 16 percent. Section 8 housing assistance is being cut by 6 percent, but the program also faces a 31-percent decrease in administrative funds from the federal government, which pay for staff costs and hours.
Section 8 is no longer accepting participants, although Childers is optimistic that enough people will work their way out of the program that it won't have to cut families from it. Three to five families become financially stable enough each month to leave assistance.
But she said that might not be enough. In fact, some housing authorities have already informed the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development they will cease their Section 8 programs.
Beaufort Housing Authority is not at that point, but one option on the table is reducing the amount of rent assistance to recipients. That decision would hurt families, who might no longer be able to afford decent housing. Landlords also might drop out of the program, leading to fewer residences available to low-income families, Childers said. The authority works with many landlords to provide housing, and if the authority pays less, then either renters will not be able to stay where they are or the landlords might have to decrease rents
The reduction in administrative fees could mean authority employees' work weeks are cut from 40 hours a week to 32, "and you just can't do in 32 hours what you do in 40," Childers said.
The 800 families on a waiting list for Section 8 assistance indicate a strong need for help in the county, Childers said
"They are pulling their weight as much as they can afford," Mullen said. "A lot of people think it's like how the old projects used to be. But you have to work or do community service if you don't have jobs. They don't just give free rent."
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.