Housing siege

October 25, 2004

PUBLIC HOUSING administrators around the country have a war-time vocabulary these days. They say signals from Washington indicate that housing programs for the poor are "under assault" by the Bush administration and are being "battered" by ill-conceived funding cuts and untenable restrictions.

Call it the lexicon of the worried. And judging by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's latest moves on the Section 8 voucher program, there is indeed much to worry about. HUD recently cut $400,000 from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City's administrative subsidy for Section 8, a federal rent assistance program -- a development for which the authority had not budgeted. Soon after, HUD released new rent reimbursement figures that were unrealistically low given prevailing rents in the city.

This seems anything but fair, especially because HUD used so-called random dialing surveys to make the rent determinations rather than more reliable census data, as it has in the past. It's not surprising, given the administration's stated desire to rein in the escalating costs -- $14.4 billion and counting -- of the Section 8 program. But it is remarkable how quickly what began as a stealth policy of piecemeal changes has morphed into the systematic dismantling of a successful program. The poor and politically powerless will be hurt most: More than 90 percent of the 12,000 families in the city who rely on Section 8 are classified as "extremely low income."

Landlords participating in Section 8 are likely to pull out of the program for fear of losing money. The same goes for developers who got federal subsidies for building affordable housing for Section 8 tenants. Both scenarios would be disastrous for a city with 42,000 vacant rental housing units; more than half of those that are Section 8 eligible are uninhabitable and fail to meet HUD quality standards. As a result, half the landlords who want to take part in the program are turned away, leaving the city with not enough livable places for Section 8 tenants.

The housing authority already has lost $11.2 million in HUD funding this year for public housing and Section 8 programs. To make up the shortfall, 84 vacant positions were abolished, 75 employees were laid off, and 50 public housing police officers and 20 commanders were transferred to the Baltimore Police Department.

When Paul T. Graziano came on board as city housing commissioner four years ago, the Section 8 program was facing a federal takeover. He turned it around. Today, Mr. Graziano is facing new challenges over which he has significantly less control. But Baltimore and other metro area housing authorities should marshal their resources and enlist the help of congressional representatives to stave off any further cuts.

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