by: Tenikka Smith Updated:
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Investigators say they've discovered tens of thousands of dollars worth of public housing fraud in Charlotte.
Experts say too many people are cheating the system, getting housing assistance they don't qualify for -- which comes from your tax dollars.
Eyewitness News anchor Tenikka Smith found out what's being done to catch them and how that fraud is hurting other families in need.
Mother of three Brenda Yeargin said she spent years taking all kinds of odd jobs to keep her family afloat.
“I’ve worked in warehouses, (as a) secretary, receptionist -- anything that I could learn to do,” she said.
But she needed help to afford safe and stable housing, so she applied for the Charlotte Housing Authority's housing choice voucher program. The federally funded program pays all or part of rental costs for low-income residents who qualify.
Yeargin spent six years on the waiting list until she finally got accepted into the program a year ago and was able to move into her west Charlotte home.
“I’m thankful,” Yeargin said. “I’m thankful for this.”
Nearly 5,000 families in Mecklenburg County participate in the housing choice voucher program, formerly known as Section 8. Their eligibility is reviewed once a year, but if their income changes, they are supposed to report it to the Housing Authority in writing within 10 days so their assistance can be adjusted.
But in recent months, Allison Preston with the Charlotte Housing Authority said they have discovered a rise in people getting more assistance than they should.
“We have a case this quarter where an individual owes about $15,000,” Preston said. “They had a salary of about $33,000 to $34,000 a year (and) failed to report that salary in a timely manner.”
When fraud is discovered, the Housing Authority does require residents to pay them back.
In 2011, the agency collected more than $150,000 in repayment from fraud cases.
But already between April and June of this year, the agency has detected more than $162,000 in fraud.
Preston said the biggest reason for the increase is that they've gone from one compliance officer on staff to three. He said they train frequently and that technology improvements help them to better check participants' incomes.
Nicole Jones is one of those additional officers.
“We have families that we have discovered that have incomes of over $55,000 or more than shouldn't even be on the program,” she said.
And nearly 2,000 people still sit on the waiting list that has been virtually closed since 2005.
Many of those people turn to Crisis Assistance Ministry for help. On a recent day, more than 200 people filled its lobby, asking for assistance with rent and utilities.
“It’s the story of a mom who's working hard but the benefits are so low and the hours are cut back. We’ve found in so many circumstances they are living on the edge,” said Carol Hardison, CEO of Crisis Assistance.
Hardison said many of the people she serves also receive Housing Authority rental vouchers. She said it's the struggle to make ends meet that may drive some people to try to take advantage of the system.
But Hardison encourages anyone receiving assistance to be honest and upfront about their finances.
“You don’t have to fraud the system to get help,” she said.
Yeargin said the chance at having a stable home is helping her open the door to a more self-sufficient life.
“Understand that that's not right -- just do what you need to do and let other people get their chances because they deserve it,” Yeargin said.
In fraud cases less than $5,000, the Charlotte Housing Authority puts offenders on a repayment plan.
If it’s more than $5,000, the person is put out of the program, has to repay the money and could face charges.
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