Bush seeks to raise rent minimum for poor

Rates would start at $50

goal is to promote work


WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is proposing to increase rents charged to thousands of poor people who receive federal housing aid.

The increase would be accomplished by changing three little words in federal law. The minimum rent for tenants, which is "not more than $50" a month under law, would have to be "at least $50" a month under President Bush's plan.

In budget documents sent to Congress last week, the administration said the proposal was "intended to promote work" by people who live in federally subsidized housing.

Local standards

Some local authorities have a minimum rent of zero or $25 a month. Under Bush's proposal, they would have to charge $50 a month and could set the minimum much higher for some or all tenants.

Housing officials in New York, Philadelphia and Tacoma, Wash., said they did not have minimum rents. On average, they said, tenants pay 30 percent of their incomes in rent for their subsidized units.

The proposal is the latest example of what critics describe as onerous requirements placed on poor people by Bush's budget. Under it, families would face more difficulties in obtaining hardship exemptions from the minimum rent requirement.

The existing law lists five situations in which local agencies have to grant exemptions, for example, if a tenant has lost a job, suffered a death in the family or lost eligibility for cash assistance because of time limits on paying welfare benefits.

The law, adopted in 1998, also says a family receiving federal housing aid cannot be evicted because of failure to pay the minimum rent.

These categories of mandatory exemptions would be repealed under the administration proposal. Exemptions would be granted in rare circumstances, and then only by the federal government. The proposed language says, "A hardship exemption may be granted on a case-by-case basis, as determined by the secretary" of housing and urban development.

Goals of proposal

An assistant secretary of housing and urban development, Michael Liu, said yesterday that the minimum rent proposal was "a reasonable way to promote work and responsibility."

Liu said some people who lived in public housing or received rental aid in the form of Section 8 vouchers could afford to pay much more than $50 a month.

"We wanted to provide flexibility to the local housing authorities," he said.

The executive director of the Housing Authority of Reno, Nev., David C. Morton, said, "The proposal for a minimum rent, with no cap, would be a major change and could place significant burdens on some low-income people."

Moreover, Morton added, the proposal to require families to obtain federal approval for exemptions is unrealistic.

"As a practical matter," he asked, "what low-income family is going to be able to go through that process to get an exemption?"

Morton is president of a national organization of directors of housing agencies.

Possible cuts

Local agencies might need to raise rents because Washington recently told them that their operating subsidies could be cut up to 30 percent in the first quarter of this year. Federal officials said the cuts might be necessary because of a $250 million shortfall that resulted from government accounting errors and miscalculations.

Housing officials in Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Tucson, Ariz., and Tampa, Fla., said they were considering layoffs, hiring freezes and cutbacks in repairs, maintenance, security and other services. After complaints from lawmakers of both parties, the administration said the cut might be 10 percent, if Congress appropriates the full amount that Bush requested for this fiscal year.

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