Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Playing Games With Housing

Congress and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have been playing a transparent game of "good cop, bad cop" since HUD set out to savage Section 8, the federal program that provides housing subsidies for the poor. Republicans in Congress say they budgeted enough money to underwrite the program, and they blame recalcitrant officials at HUD for the cutbacks — while the agency, in turn, maintains that it is doing what Congress told it to do.

Behind the game, however, both sides seem intent on squeezing money from the HUD budget to help pay for all those tax cuts for the rich, even if it means exposing thousands of poor families to the possibility of eviction.

Most of the families who receive subsidies under the 30-year-old Section 8 program live at or below the poverty level. They pay about 30 percent of their incomes toward rent and government vouchers pay the rest.

Conservative Republicans, who have long wanted to scale back the program, have usually been beaten back by their colleagues. This time around, the appropriators in Congress provided full financing for the program while quietly authorizing HUD to make cuts by administrative means. The department then announced that it would no longer pay the full cost of the vouchers, and it froze federal funds at the level of August 2003, plus an adjustment for inflation.

In addition, HUD's new policy involves retroactive cuts, which only became clear at the end of May, long after local housing authorities had committed themselves to helping new families, including many who had waited for years to get decent housing through the voucher program. Obviously, if cuts have to be made, the only sensible way to make them is to do so gradually and well in advance, so the local housing agencies can adjust to the new reality while preserving housing for their most vulnerable tenants.

Faced with unexpected shortfalls, local public housing agencies have informed landlords that they can no longer pay agreed-upon rent subsidies, making it likely that many Section 8 tenants will soon be shown the door. A recent survey from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests that most agencies with shortfalls will go this route. The survey also shows that local authorities have revoked newly issued vouchers and have begun to withdraw from circulation the vouchers that become available when families get better jobs and move out of the subsidy program.

In addition, local agencies have begun to raise rents for the vulnerable families who can least afford to pay, something that is a sure way of destabilizing these families while driving them deeper into poverty.

The Bush administration is counting on Republicans at the state level to keep quiet in the interest of party solidarity. But given the disastrous nature of the new policies, governors, state legislators and mayors of both parties have both a moral and political obligation to speak out.