By JOSH FRIEDMAN
A San Luis Obispo County employee who makes nearly $75,000 a year in cash and benefits receives public housing assistance under a program that allows previously low-income households to continue receiving government-funded rent assistance.
Last month, a group of striking employees spoke of their financial hardships during a SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting. Cassandra DeSpain, a county employment/resource specialist, said her wages are so low she continues to qualify for Medi-Cal and Section 8 housing subsidies.
“Very much pride and humility to admit the fact that even after a five-year (employment), me and my two children, we still qualify for Medi-Cal and Section 8,” DeSpain said. “If my wages were fair living wages, there is absolutely no reason I should qualify for those programs.”
In 2017, DeSpain received pay of $58,626 and $74,828 in total compensation, according to the Transparent California database.
In order to qualify for the Section 8 Housing Program, a three-person household must have a gross income of no more than $37,450, according to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) income limits for SLO County. However, a program recipient can continue to receive benefits as long as their base salary remains below the median income for the area and their combined rent and utilities remain at a level below 30 percent of their household’s income, HASLO Executive Director Scott Smith said.
After Cal Coast Times reported on DeSpain’s public comment, she sent an email explaining how she continues to qualify for government-funded rent assistance.
“My household is a continued eligible household and has been for many years,” DeSpain wrote. “This means that the guidelines are different than an entrant applicant and my income is calculated as a percentage to my rent ratio. I continue to carry eligibility as my income to rent ratio has not been exceeded. Since my employment with the county, I have come ever closer to falling out of the eligibility. Today Section 8 pays $170 and I pay $1,235 for a total rent of $1,405. I live in a little two bedroom apartment that I have occupied for almost 12 years.”
SLO County has a median income of $59,900, putting DeSpain’s 2017 pay just below the limit.
Even so, DeSpain’s clarification raises questions as to whether she is occupying space in the program that could go to a program applicant with substantially lower income. The program operates on a lottery with generally about 1,250 applicants battling for 250 to 800 subsidized rentals.
Jerry Brown, a media liaison for HUD, said the aim of Section 8 is to shift people from receiving government assistance to self-sufficiency.
“The goal is to move people to self supporting,” Brown said. “People with higher incomes should not be occupying space needed by others.”
DeSpain did not respond to two email requests for comment, asking whether or not she believes it is right for her to remain on Section 8 and asking how the pay raise for which she is advocating would would impact her Section 8 eligibility.
Last month, SLO County employees carried out the first strike in county government history. County officials had agreed to give union members .5 percent salary increases for the current fiscal year, and 2 percent raises effective July 1, 2019. The union rejected the deal, demanding raises of an additional 2.5 percent, to give them 3 percent raises for the 2018-2019 fiscal year.
The strike concluded with county officials saying they were not planning on any further salary negotiations for the current fiscal year and that, in early 2019, they would discuss pay increases for 2019-2020. The county then announced a projected budget shortfall of $5 million to $10 million for 2019-2020.