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Editorial: Feds must restore housing funding

Sunday, June 27, 2004

WITH MANY Americans still waiting for a recovering economy to produce jobs, this is an inopportune time to suddenly slash federal support for low-income housing. But the Bush administration seems bent on doing just that by launching an assault on Section 8, the nation's premier housing assistance program.

Section 8 was devised to end the custom of concentrating people in large, unsightly and sometimes dangerous public-housing projects. The idea was to issue vouchers to allow the elderly, disabled and poor to find housing anywhere. If the rents don't exceed predetermined guidelines, and voucher recipients use 30 percent of their income to pay for their housing, the federal government promised to pay the rest.

The system worked well for the past 30 years. But in April, the White House began backing away from the housing commitment by mandating new policies and cutting funds to the 2, 500 public-housing authorities that administer the program.

In an unprecedented move -- in the middle of the fiscal year -- the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development decided that Section 8 reimbursements to local agencies would not be based on actual voucher costs. Instead, the agencies would be repaid only at the level of the Section 8 vouchers in use as of August 1, 2003. What's more, the change was retroactive to January -- four months before the announcement.

It pulled the rug from under public-housing agencies, potentially denying 250,000 families decent housing, forcing many others to spend perhaps 50 percent of their income to get it.

The new rules, part of Bush's effort to reduce public-housing spending, are sorely at odds with his stated desire to end chronic homelessness in 10 years.

"If you freeze funding, people will be eliminated and it increases the possibility for homelessness,'' said Gregg Fortner, head of the San Francisco Housing Authority. Already, there are 29,000 families on the city's Section 8 waiting list, he said, and now "we can't get to some of these people for 50 years.''

Many local agencies are using reserve funds to keep their Section 8 programs afloat for this year, but practically all of them are bracing for shortfalls and heartaches soon.

New York City needs to find $55 million if it is to fully fund its 118, 000 vouchers; Warrenton, Ore., dropped 110 families from Section 8, and the city of Alameda, now short $3 million in housing funds, cut off 240 families.

While the White House is "happy to continue tax cuts for wealthy corporate interests, they are making cuts that threaten safe and secure homes for thousands of children and families,'' said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D- San Francisco. She and, so far, 115 of her colleagues have joined Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., to fight to restore Section 8 funding by passing HR4263.

We urge the rest of Congress to join this effort to maintain a longstanding federal commitment to help low-income people find housing.

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