Now or later

May 24, 2004

OUTCRY FROM public housing agencies and governors across the country persuaded the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last week to ease the pain of a rule change that threatened to force hundreds of poor families off federal rent assistance.

But the help offered so far applies only half a Band-Aid to the problem of how agencies will maintain their rental vouchers this year while the Bush administration tries to curb Section 8 costs. The pain, apparently, is merely postponed.

HUD had been updating the value of a voucher every three months so it would jibe with the reality of rent costs, but then in April it said reimbursements would be far less generous - well after local agencies had planned their budgets. HUD said it would pay August 2003 rates, plus a little more for inflation, for vouchers that local housing authorities had already pledged at going rates to poor families.

The change sent some housing authorities in Maryland counties and elsewhere into a tizzy: To make up shortfalls, some would have to deny vouchers to needy families, or charge them a greater share of their subsidized rent.

So at best, by tweaking the complex Section 8 funding formula - and releasing money left over from 2003 to local authorities earlier than scheduled - HUD now buys time for local agencies to seek savings alternatives that don't penalize the poor who depend on the program.

Some may, for example, be able to balance their books with the normal attrition of people who leave the program. Some may be able to rely on the rental market easing. And some housing agencies that have been granting more vouchers than they're allotted can use the time to get their spending in line.

But the elephant is still in the living room: Even with this modest relief, HUD acknowledges, there may be agencies that cannot avoid passing the shortfall down to the customers, some of the 2 million elderly, disabled and poor Americans who need rent subsidies to keep a roof overhead. HUD says it's simply following a congressional mandate to curb spending on Section 8. Congress approved a 14 percent increase bringing the rent voucher program budget total to $14.5 billion, but also approved the cap on voucher spending, HUD says.

HUD's interpretation of that language in the federal budget now is disputed by members of Congress who seem shocked by its impact on local agencies - and apparently unclear on what they passed or what it meant. Several bills are being drafted to force HUD to reverse course.

The dissembling is disheartening to anyone who cares about the fate of the families potentially affected. Spare us the hot air: A genuine show of leadership would be one that identified ways to better control Section 8 program expenses without pushing families now receiving vouchers out into the street.

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