Decision in Section 8 housing assistance hearing insufficient to terminate benefits

by Melanie Thwing

Daniels v. City of Des Moines Municipal Housing Agency
(Iowa Court of Appeals, September 9, 2010)

Felicia Daniels is a resident of Des Moines, IA who was receiving benefits from the Section 8 Housing Assistance Program. The purpose of this program is to help low-income families obtain, “a decent place to live.” This is a program run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which then contracts out to Public Housing Agencies (PHA) at the state and local levels.

In February of 2009 the Des Moines Municipal Housing Agency (DMMHA) notified Daniels that her rental subsidy would be terminated because of a second failed inspection resulting in a violation of her lease.  The items listed as causing the second failed inspection included a battery missing from a smoke detector, writing on the walls, and a missing light fixture. Daniels filed a written request for a hearing, and an unrecorded hearing before a hearings officer occurred in March. In April, a written decision from the hearings officer in support of termination was filed, and cited to evidence of a failed first and second inspection.

In May of 2009 Daniels filed for a writ of certiorari to negate her termination from the program claiming a due process violation, and inadequate evidence. In December the district court affirmed the hearings officer’s decision. Daniels then appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals on the grounds that the unrecorded hearing did not follow “constitutional or regulatory requirements.”

The Court first lookedat when a PHA can terminate an individual or family from the program. The hearings officer wrote in his decision that Daniels “violated obligation of the family” by causing a breach of Housing Quality Standards (HQS).  The law states that the family “is responsible for a breach of  the HQS that is caused”  by the damages to the housing unit.  The Court of Appeals pointed out that the hearings officer found that the family caused damages, but failed to address the other half of the equation: whether the damages resulted in a breach of the HQS.  The Court thus found this to be an inadequate claim upon which to terminate the Section 8 subsidy.

Daniels also argued that a violation of her due process rights took place. She pointed to judicial precedence that requires the hearings officer, in his written decision on termination, to include factual determinations relating to the individual circumstances of the family and reflect that he is aware of his discretionary authority to take all relevant circumstances into account.  During the hearing, Daniels spoke to the fact that the landlord refused to fix anything, that she had repaired everything that passed the second inspection, and that the failed items were the landlord’s responsibility. The written document from the hearing does state the “Position of Participant,” but, the Court of Appeals pointed out, there is no way to know from the written decision if these circumstances were taken into account by the hearings officer. The Court comes to the conclusion that because there is neither rationale listed by the hearings officer, nor any indication that he was aware he was authorized to exercise discretionary authority, the record as a whole was insufficient to terminate the Section 8 funding. The decision is reversed.

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