Families living in public housing along the Wasatch Front could face increased rents and time limits under a plan being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Local housing officials are waiting for HUD's approval to implement a plan that may include fixed rents, higher minimum rents, limits on how long they can live there and elimination of utility assistance. About 1,100 units in Salt Lake, Davis and Utah counties could be affected, including nearly all units with two or more bedrooms.The goal is a program with greater incentives for families to get off public housing and become self-sufficient, said Scott Lancelot, director of the Housing Authority of Salt Lake County.

But some poverty advocates are concerned the changes may negatively impact the very people who need housing assistance the most.

"I've got quite a few concerns about the Moving to Work program," said Whitney Rearick, housing specialist for Utah Issues. "Changing public housing is a good idea, but this is not the right direction."

A consortium of seven Utah housing authorities, recognized for their history of good management, was granted unprecedented freedom by HUD last year to design the new "Moving to Work Demonstration" program.

Participating are the housing authorities of Salt Lake City, West Valley, Provo and Ogden cities and Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties. Housing authorities in 17 other states were also chosen for the program.

Only families living in units owned by local housing authorities - about 10 percent of all public housing - will be affected, said Rosemary Kappes, director of the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City. In Salt Lake City, that's 330 of the city's 2,200 units.

Family self-sufficiency is the basis of the project, with case management and escrow accounts for those who work.

One significant proposal would end the current system of charging families in public housing 30 percent of their incomes in rent. Instead, families would be required to pay minimum rents, from $25 to $100, regardless of income. And the housing authorities would no longer provide assistance with utility bills.

Elderly and disabled residents are exempt from the requirements. The larger Section 8 program, in which residents are given certificates to pay for rent in privately owned units, will remain as a safety net, Kappes said. The provisions, however, could be expanded to Section 8 housing after a few years, Lancelot said.

Time limits of five to seven years for able-bodied people are also being considered. Families who do not participate in the process could be evicted.

Minimum rents and time limits in housing may hurt the very, very poor, Rearick said. She says housing officials and the Utah Department of Workforce Services need to consider how housing time limits will affect poor people already facing time limits on welfare.

Making public housing work like the private market isn't feasible, Rearick said, considering people are in public housing because the private market didn't work for them.

Kappes said the program is not intended to be malicious. Both Lancelot and Kappes agree more people currently on long waiting lists could be served if able-bodied families made the transition out of public housing.

"We don't intend to put together a program that's going to be punitive to families," Lancelot said. "But they will have to take charge of their own lives and have a greater expectation that they'll have to increase the rents they pay over a period of years so they are able to transition into the private market."

The consortium wants as much flexibility as possible for each city and county, Lancelot said. But preliminary discussions indicate HUD wants a more uniform approach by the entire consortium.

A consultant hired by HUD will visit the state in July.

To educate the public, Utah advocacy groups are sponsoring a daylong conference Saturday. More than 200 residents have already signed up to attend, Rearick said.

The conference will be from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the Horizonte Learning Center, 1234 S. Main, with no charge.