Rent controls

April 23, 2004

CONGRESS thwarted the Bush administration's last attempt to re-engineer the rent voucher, a linchpin of housing assistance for the poor. So it should surprise no one that the block grant proposal is back in a more odious form, just in time for campaign season.

Local housing authorities could do more with less if freed from cumbersome regulation, the administration theorizes. Under the new proposal, local agencies would control the program, but on a shrinking budget. The president's 2005 budget proposal would in effect cut at least $1.6 billion from the Section 8 program, and also projects slashing funding about 30 percent by 2009, housing officials and advocates estimate.

This could force some housing authorities to make painful choices that may include reducing subsidies or leaving some families out in the cold. More than 4,300 Maryland families - including 1,200 in Baltimore - could be affected next year if Congress were to approve the proposal and budget, estimates the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.

But that's not the unkindest cut. One proposed "efficiency" to stretch the voucher budget would allow local agencies to favor families who are able to pay more of their rent. The proposal would eliminate a rule that now reserves three-fourths of the vouchers for the neediest families, those earning only 30 percent of the local median income. That just penalizes the poorest of the poor, for whom Section 8 was created.

Given the huge federal deficit, says Michael Liu, assistant secretary for public and Indian housing, the rent voucher program cannot keep growing. It is now 51 percent of the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget, driven up in recent years by runaway rents and program expansions.

It makes business sense to control growth, seek efficiencies and grant greater flexibility to local authorities. But instead of stopping at flat funding or addressing acknowledged problems with the centralized management, the administration plan would unnecessarily dump other aspects of the program that are working. HUD's rhetoric of change is borrowed from welfare reform: Reduce dependence on federal aid. Provide incentives for reductions in the number of recipients. Move rental families toward homeownership and self-sufficiency. Let locals figure out how.

You'd think housing authorities would be champing at the bit for greater control, to tailor voucher programs to community needs such as breaking up pockets of poverty and settling the working poor closer to suburban jobs. In fact they are, but sacrificing funding that helps families to get that power looks like a raw deal. The administration has already tipped its hand: Its goal is to spend less on social programs.

Yet a nation that can afford tax cuts for its wealthiest ought to be able to keep a roof over the heads of the 2 million of its working poor, elderly and disabled helped by rent vouchers. They represent a fraction of the need; many regions have long waiting lists.

HUD could seek savings by addressing poor coordination among poverty programs, cutting down on errors in rate-setting, reducing red tape, supporting affordable housing, and further mining its recent Moving to Opportunity experiments for best practices before pressing for wholesale changes or shifting Section 8's priorities.

We have to agree with Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a Missouri Republican and chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that handles housing issues: This proposal has "fatal flaws." Congress should squash it.

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