Slashing Section 8

If the Bush administration has its way, more people could find themselves homeless.

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More people than ever are struggling to find affordable housing, yet if the Bush administration has its way and proposed changes to the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development go through, a lot of people who now depend on the government help out with the rent will find themselves on the street.

The Bush administration aims in its 2005 budget to cut by $1 billion the $18 billion fund that helps about 2 million Americans–generally the poor, elderly, and disabled–pay their rent. Specifically, it wants to rein in the growing costs of Section 8, the housing voucher program that chips in around two-thirds of the rent of low-income people, and which conservatives have traditionally favored on the grounds that it steers people toward private landlords instead of forcing them into public housing.

Since Section 8 programs began in 1975, the vouchers have helped to integrate cities where lower-income tenants would otherwise be href=”” target=”blank”>tossed out on the streets or to peripheral suburbs.

Outraged social service providers around the country are decrying the mooted cuts, which they view as yet more evidence of government attempts to deny needy workers federal help while doling out billions in corporate welfare. Wrote the Journal News of Westchester County, New York:

It should be unconscionable to reduce housing assistance to the nation’s poorest people when the Bush administration and some in Congress are pressing for still more tax cuts for the wealthy. Apparently, it is not.”

Yet HUD maintains that it is simply cutting red tape, curbing spiraling costs, and reducing voucher wait lists by promoting self-sufficiency and home ownership. The bureau, which spends three-fourths of its $23 billion budget on Section 8, would give block grants to regions instead of setting voucher quotas. This is supposed to create flexibility for the nation’s 2,500 local housing agencies.

The likely result, though, is that fewer families will get any benefits at all, or else they will have to pay more rent out of their own pockets. The HUD budget will fall $1.5 billion short of granting the current number of rent coupons. And future voucher grants might favor renters who make more money than the truly down-and-out, allowing the government to give more people smaller benefits.

Washington also plans to cap the annual rise in Section 8 grants at 1 percent, even though rents rise by an average of 5 percent each year. At that rate, the tenant of a $700 apartment would pay a total $222 more in the second year of the lease.

The proposed cuts come at a time, arguably, when more people than ever need help with their housing costs. U.S. inflation has outpaced earnings; the minimum wage hasn’t risen since the early 1990s; and the supply of housing available to the neediest people plunged by 19 percent in the 1990s, according to HUD’s own estimates. The number of “worst-case households” started rising in 1999 after a decline during the prosperous mid-90s. Affordable housing advocates charge that Bush’s promotion of home ownership ignores the more urgent need for urban rental units, especially for the projected influx of 13 million immigrants in the next decade.

Tens of thousands of people could lose their rent discounts in New York City alone, which could face $54 million in cuts. Most people getting the subsidies make an average of up to $5,000 a year there–barely enough to afford a security deposit on a one-bedroom flat. People lose the vouchers once they make $33,900.

Grassroots housing groups charge that the HUD budget cuts would punish local agencies for either serving too many or too few tenants. Voucher demand in most communities outstrips availability. The feds would freeze aid to housing agencies that serve fewer people than they are earmarked to help, but will also bar them from using any leftover funds to assist additional families outside of government quotas.

The Bush administration wants to wean more people off of subsidies, it says, for their own good. One program that aims to do that helps the working poor to save money while getting rental aid from the government. Yet Washington would also cut $40 million in case management, shortchanging local agencies on the dollars they need to counsel lessors. This certainly doesn’t help caseworkers to aid families back onto their feet. Instead, it would keep tenants in the dark about how best to use their money, thus making it more likely that they will fall behind and continue to seek handouts.

“In a depressed economy with people eating in soup kitchens and living on the streets, this is a stunning and insensitive move by the federal government,” the New York City Spanish language daily La Prensa charges.

Section 8 keeps our city from becoming divided into neighborhoods for the rich and those for the poor.

The unique mix of people here is what gives New York its flavor and diversity. That would surely be lost if tens of thousands of those people suddenly could not afford to live here anymore.

Rising housing costs plague most major cities and are connected in part to a kind of “reverse white flight,” wherby young professionals move from the suburbs to urban centers, reviving blighted downtowns but also driving up rents.

Section 8 has allowed poor and usually minority renters to remain in gentrifying neighborhoods, keeping otherwise affluent areas integrated. That means that several hundred low-income families in Chicago, for example, can live in tidy homes across the street from million-dollar properties, blocks from some of the toniest shopping venues in the Midwest. It’s an attractive alternative to the stigma of an address in, say, the project towers of Cabrini Green several blocks to the south. Yet even the highrises are yielding to the wrecking ball, leaving most residents without a new place to call home.

Communities of all sizes are facing the dilemma of where to house their neediest residents. In Birmingham, Alabama, housing officials passed out 3,000 applications to potential voucher recipients this week. Some area residents camped overnight in cars by the housing office so they could get closer to the door in a 5-block line. Still, after turning in the forms, they will wait again for months or longer to find out if they’ll be awarded housing vouchers. If the HUD plan passes, people waiting on the street to apply for vouchers will be more likely to live there.


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