by Susan Wood
(IPS) NEW YORK -- The Bush administration, having already slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from public housing programs, is proposing legislation that would reverse a decades-long federal policy that helped provide decent housing for some of the neediest people in the United States, say housing advocates.
Both houses of Congress are debating the bill, known as the State and Local Housing Flexibility Act. It would introduce sweeping changes in the so-called Section 8 housing voucher program, which helps cover the cost of private rental housing for families living close to the poverty line.
The bill would remove limits on the share of income these families must pay for rent and utilities, while targeting housing subsidies to families earning significantly higher incomes. Public housing residents also would see their rents rise, in some cases to near-market rates.
The effect of these changes would be to shift increased housing costs onto the backs of those least able to afford them -- families with children, the elderly and the disabled, who make up the bulk of subsidized housing tenants, advocates told IPS.
Some might lose their apartments and have to double or triple up with relatives, or in the worst-case scenario, swell the ranks of the homeless. Such an outcome would contradict the administration's stated goal of ending major homelessness in 10 years, they said.
"Rents are going sky-high," said Charlotte Rodgers, a public housing resident in Brooklyn, New York. Even in her neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant -- an economically depressed, largely black district -- landlords charge $1,200 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, she said.
The people she knows work as security guards or home health aides, earning six to eight dollars an hour, which works out to an average of $280 for a 40-hour week. Paying market rent means "you wouldn't have much to live on," Rodgers said.
Section 8, known formally as the Housing Choice Voucher Program, was established during the Richard Nixon administration and expanded under Ronald Reagan. The program is administered nationally by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and at the regional, state, and local level by some 2,800 public housing agencies (PHAs). Some two million households receive vouchers.
Since 1998, the voucher program has been the largest form of federal housing assistance. The reason, according to Linda Couch, deputy director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), is that giving poor tenants a choice of where to live was found to be a better strategy for fighting poverty than concentrating them in public housing projects. Since most vouchers are provided to particular tenants rather than to buildings, the program allows them to move into less drug- and crime-plagued neighborhoods with better job opportunities and schools.
The system does not work perfectly.
Landlords sometimes illegally discriminate against voucher holders and nationwide shortages of affordable housing mean that waiting lists are essentially frozen in many areas. In New York City, there were 123,000 families on the list for the Section 8 program as of last autumn. Overall, however, the program has provided "an immediate safety net" for people who might otherwise become homeless, Couch said.
That safety net now is in danger of unraveling. Under current rules, 75 percent of vouchers must go to families with incomes below a certain threshold, about $15,000 nationally. The proposed legislation would reverse that requirement, mandating instead that 90 percent of vouchers go to families earning twice that much, and 10 percent to those earning even more. The bill also would do away with a requirement that families pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities and allow PHAs to set rental payments based on market conditions, not income.
Other provisions of the bill would cut off assistance to voucher holders after five years, reduce voucher portability, and abolish so-called "enhanced" vouchers that protect tenants from steep rent increases when landlords opt out of the Section 8 program -- displacing 200,000 families, according to Michael Kane, executive director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT).
Adam Glantz, a spokesperson for HUD, defended the proposals as necessary to meet the rising costs of the program, which he said have jumped by 50 percent in the past five years to the detriment of HUD's other programs.
The new rules are designed to make the program "more cost-effective" by giving PHAs the "flexibility" to serve higher-income tenants, he said in an interview.
Such flexibility, however, is exactly what the bill's opponents fear.
"If funding is being cut, if agencies are given the freedom to reduce the number of families getting vouchers and use the money thereby freed up to fill any shortfall in their public housing funding, they might do that," said Barbara Sard, director of housing policy for the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
"There's no dispute that if you make people contribute more towards their rent you can stretch your dollars," Sard said. "But all that says is, you can make different priority choices."
While the Bush administration's budget request for fiscal 2006, which begins Oct. 1, 2005, includes an increase in the number of vouchers for low-income families, it would restore only half the voucher funding that was cut this year, according to a study published on CBPP's Web site. The center estimates that by 2010, funding for all public housing programs, including vouchers, will be $3.7 billion below current levels, which would mean 370,000 fewer families would receive vouchers.
Kane, of NAHT, compared the administration's housing proposals to its campaign to privatize the government's Social Security retirement program, charging that ideological opposition to publicly funded social initiatives drives both efforts. "If you make successful programs unworkable by cutting their funds, then as public support declines you can pull the plug further," he told IPS.
"Pitting middle-class people, many of whom will become elderly or disabled and will need Section 8, against the poor should not be done when tax cuts are going to the wealthy," he added, an allusion to changes in the U.S. tax code made under Bush.
June 2, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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