[Hpn] Fear over public-housing rule changes

William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sun, 26 Jun 2005 03:50:12 -0400

Fear over public-housing rule changes

Full story:

 By Michael A. Fletcher
The Washington Post

June 26, 2005

 PHILADELPHIA -- The Bush administration's plan to eliminate many of the
federal rules requiring public-housing authorities to serve extremely
low-income people has caused widespread concern among housing advocates who
say the change could prove ruinous for the nation's poorest families with
nowhere else to turn.

 The proposal would allow local housing authorities to charge higher rents,
provide lower subsidies and limit the amount of time tenants can stay in
federally subsidized housing to as little as five years.

 Taken together, the changes would amount to one of the most dramatic policy
shifts in the 68-year history of public housing.

 Administration officials say the proposal suits the president's vision of
promoting self-sufficiency and encouraging home ownership. But advocates and
local housing officials worry the changes will reduce an already inadequate
supply of housing affordable to people mired in deep poverty.

 "The changes would harm households with the most severe affordable-housing
needs," said Douglas Rice, director of housing and community development for
Catholic Charities USA. "The shortage of affordable housing is one of the
primary causes of homelessness, and extremely low-income households are most
at risk of becoming homeless."

 The proposal expands on previous administration efforts, largely thwarted
by Congress, aimed at reducing long-term dependency on federal housing

 Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, testifying before
a House committee last month, said the plan would encourage tenants to move
into market-rate rentals or to buy homes, with federal help for down
payments and closing costs.

 "The federal government has allowed families who declare no income to live
rent-free and to receive a check to pay for utilities," Jackson said. "There
is little incentive for families to seek housing outside of the voucher
program; in fact, there is a disincentive to make positive life decisions."

 Jackson, who formerly headed housing authorities in Washington, D.C., St.
Louis and Dallas, said the new rules would reward families striving to
improve their lives with greater share of federal housing aid.

 Current guidelines, he said, "have shut the door on voucher assistance on
low-income individuals who work hard to raise their income."

 The proposals are part of what Jackson called an effort to rein in the
spiraling cost of subsidies while transforming public housing from "a
handout" for the deeply impoverished to "a hand up" for the working poor.
Jackson said the average housing-assistance payment had gone from $411 a
household a month in 2000 to $557 in 2004.

 Tenant advocates and local housing officials said the nation's poorest
families would be forced to compete for a diminishing supply of housing

 And even when they secure federal housing help, they said, the
administration's refusal to fund the programs at higher levels means local
housing authorities would be pressured to require poor tenants to pay a
larger share of their income in rent.

 Advocates said many of the 3 million families in public housing or with
federal vouchers that cover much of their rent in private housing do not
earn enough to pay more.

 "Public housing is a critical part of a pretty tattered safety net," said
Barbara Sard, a housing expert with the Center on Budget and Policy
Priorities. "The rule changes would have the effect of shifting money away
from lower-income to higher-income folks."

 Michael Kelly, executive director of the D.C. Housing Authority, said he
likes the idea of being allowed more latitude in how he spends federal
housing aid. What worries him is the government's new policy to limit the
amount of money tied to each housing voucher, which would force the agency
to serve fewer people.

 The difficulty of moving tenants off federal housing subsidies is evident
in Philadelphia. Operating under a federal pilot project since 2001, the
Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) has retooled its policies to try to
ease people off lifelong public-housing dependency and into home ownership
or market-rate rentals.

 The authority offers residents "self-sufficiency" training on such matters
as personal finance and property care. It has also imposed a seven-year
limit on public-housing residency, although its executives acknowledged that
the limit is likely to be extended.

 Still, the authority has been able to move just 151 families off the
subsidy rolls and into homes of their own in the program's first four years.

 Officials hope to accelerate that shift, in part, by encouraging tenants to
get jobs in places such as retail outlets that would pay enough to allow
them to afford a mortgage with down payment and other help from the PHA.

 But perhaps the toughest obstacle officials confront in getting people off
subsidized housing is the pervasiveness of deep poverty.

 Nearly half the families receiving public-housing aid in Philadelphia have
incomes less than $8,000 a year; one-fifth reported annual incomes more than
$20,000, according to PHA statistics.

 Even if the authority can move some of its 80,000 tenants off its rolls,
thousands are waiting to take their place. Later this year, when the PHA's
waiting list for housing-subsidy vouchers is likely to reopen after being
closed for four years, the agency projects a flood of about 20,000 new

 "Public housing has been a lifetime thing, and sometimes a
multigenerational for many of our families," said Executive Director Carl
Greene said. "We're working to change that paradigm."

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