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MASON CITY — More than 1,000 North Iowans get help with their rent each month from a federal subsidy.

Another 638 households remain on a waiting list, hoping to get the assistance they need to find safe, affordable housing.

The average wait for a housing aid voucher in Mason City is 14 months.

Mason City landlord Russ Hardy has between 50 and 60 clients under the federal government’s Section 8 housing program.

“I think that there are some wonderful people on housing assistance that need housing assistance and deserve housing assistance. And if it weren’t for housing assistance, many of those people would not have a place to live. Not every tenant on housing assistance is a good one, but not every tenant is a bad one, either,” Hardy said.

Law enforcement officials have been called to problems in recent months at Northwood’s Schoolside Apartments, a public housing project on Seventh Street North.

Donald Monte Baker, 26, was charged with assault for allegedly stabbing two people during a fight on June 5 in front of the complex.

Tyrone Washington, 39, was living at the Northwood complex around the time he allegedly stabbed his ex-girlfriend to death in August.

“Yes, there are a few doing illegal activities, but it’s not the majority,” said Cerro Gordo County Sheriff Kevin Pals. “We know that in the (North Central Iowa Narcotics) task force area that we have dealt with and work with other departments and sheriff’s offices that have some issues that have come up in the last year or two.

“Yes, there are some people moving from other states to Iowa with specific intent to commit crimes in Iowa, but that is by no means the majority of people.

“The majority of them are just law-abiding citizens. They have fallen on tough luck or they are disabled and that’s where they have to live because that’s the only place the government allows them to live.”

The Northwood complex is owned and operated by the North Iowa Regional Housing Authority. The NIRHA offers Section 8 and public housing assistance.

The Mason City Housing Authority administers a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program providing rental assistance to those living or working in Mason City. The MCHA does not own or manage any public housing units.

The MCHA sets preferences for its program.

Preference for rental vouchers is given to people who have been displaced because of a government project, people with disabilities and those who are 62 years or older and are head or co-head of a household.

More than half of the clients in Mason City are disabled and elderly.

Participants in the program must sign a one-year lease.

There is no limit on how long a person can stay on the program providing they continue to meet eligibility requirements.

One of the components of the voucher program is the mobility of rental assistance, known as Section 8 portability.  The term “portability” refers to the transfer process that allows a voucher holder from out-of-state to relocate and lease a unit in another state.

Under federal law, MCHA director Cathy Burtness said, the agency must accept residents who “port” into the local program.

She said there are currently six households in the program in Mason City who are here using vouchers granted in other states.

On the other side of the issue, there are also people coming from big cities, establishing residency in North Iowa and getting Section 8 housing vouchers here, only to move with those vouchers back to the cities. That is preferable to a possibly six-year wait for a Section 8 voucher in a big city like Chicago, said Hardy.

The difference between public housing and Section 8 is that under public housing, the rental assistance is given to those living in the units. Section 8 housing vouchers are given to an individual to find their own housing from private landlords.

The NIRHA also has a preference for people living, working or going to school in the eight-county service area.

“Some people will move here or get a job in our area so they get that preference and get to the top of the list,” said NIRHA Director Deb Bullerman.

Burtness said her office works diligently to see that clients are obeying the rules of the program so they can continue to receive assistance. She said 75 percent of the complaints directed to her office about renters end up not involving Section 8 clients.

Burtness said her office does what it can to keep troublemakers out of the program. But she said sometimes the trouble may come from a relative or friend that has moved in with the voucher holder.

“With our small staff we cannot be at everyone’s front door. We do work closely with the Police Department and if violent activity or drug activity does occur at the location of an assisted person that could trigger a termination notice,” Burtness said.

Federal budget cuts because of sequestration will mean less money for both public housing and Section 8 next year. That could mean clients paying a higher percentage of their rent or fewer people getting assistance.

Burtness said they would like to have clients pay a little more rather than cut anyone from the program.

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