Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson arrives at the White House to hear President Trump announce a deal with congressional leaders to temporarily reopen the government after a partial shutdown. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
April 18

The Trump administration is proposing to tighten regulations to prevent undocumented immigrants from accessing federally subsidized housing, a move that low-income housing advocates fear will keep immigrants who are legally entitled to such benefits from receiving help.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said Thursday that it plans to strengthen the verification process for public housing beneficiaries.

“We need to make certain our scarce public resources help those who are legally entitled to it,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement. “Given the overwhelming demand for our programs, fairness requires that we devote ourselves to legal residents who have been waiting, some for many years, for access to affordable housing.”

Current rules already bar undocumented immigrants from receiving federal housing subsidies but allow families of mixed-immigration status to live in public housing as long as one person is eligible. The eligible person could be a child born in the U.S. In addition to citizens, lawful permanent residents, refugees and asylum seekers are also eligible for housing assistance.

HUD estimates that approximately 32,000 households receiving federal housing assistance are headed by individuals who are not legal U.S. residents. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that between 22,000 and 25,000 households receiving subsidized housing contain non-eligible family members; the majority of such households are in California, Texas and New York.

Federal housing subsidies are pro-rated to account for only legally eligible residents, said Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. As a result, she said, many mixed-status families pay rents that are nearly market rate because they receive lower subsidies than low-income families in which everyone is a U.S. citizen.

Under current regulations, residents in subsidized housing can declare themselves “ineligible” and avoid revealing their immigration status. The Trump administration said it wants to close that “loophole” and eventually evict from public housing anyone who is not a lawful resident.

The proposal is reminiscent of Trump’s “public charge” crackdown that would make it more difficult for immigrants accessing food stamps, Medicaid and other federal assistance from receiving permanent legal status.

“This is going to make people much more afraid because they are going to think they will not be able to get a green card or citizenship if they access benefits," said Susan Popkin, a fellow and housing expert at the Urban Institute. “It’s really going to affect people who are legally eligible for housing but who are now afraid to ask for help.”

HUD plans to require housing authorities to expand their use of the Department of Homeland Security’s entitlement verification program to ensure that federal housing assistance is awarded to eligible U.S. citizens and legal residents. Advocates worry that the Trump administration will use the addresses obtained from housing authorities to deport immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Under the proposal, all residents under the age of 62 will be screened through the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program. Residents will not be given the option of not participating in the checks.

Families with members who are not lawful U.S. residents may lose their housing assistance after 18 months, according to information provided by HUD.

The proposal came as a surprise to housing authorities as well as many within the agency, including career staff who work directly in public housing policy.

"This is a little bit of a shocker. We are curious as to what is motivating this because it’s not coming from the industry,” said Adrianne Todman, chief executive of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.

She said the association, which represents housing development agencies, has yet to receive communications from HUD on the proposed changes and is concerned about how housing authorities would begin to execute potential evictions.

“What makes this proposal seem extraordinarily cruel is that it’s looking backwards into existing families who are paying their rent and doing what they are supposed to do,” Todman said. “I’m not even quite sure how a judge would look at this, because when you evict, you have to have some type of cause.”

Carson, in a Tweet Thursday, credited President Trump’s leadership in “putting America’s most vulnerable first” and linked to a story by The Daily Caller, which first reported the change Wednesday night.

The push came from Stephen Miller, senior policy adviser responsible for crafting much of Trump’s hardline immigration policy. Miller led a White House working group charged with introducing new regulations to strip away benefits from undocumented immigrants, according to a person with direct knowledge who is not authorized to speak on the record.

HUD said it has provided its proposed changes to Congress, which has 15 days to review them before the agency will publish the potential amendments.

“Secretary Carson’s cruel proposal would break up families and destabilize communities, while doing nothing to shorten waiting lists,” said Yentel, of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “HUD falsely claims the change is proposed out of concern for long waiting lists, when they know well that it would do nothing to free up new units. The true purpose may be part of this administration’s effort to instill fear in immigrants throughout the country.”

Damian Paletta contributed to this report.