Urban hospitality

September 12, 2005

RESPONDING TO a plea from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for help housing displaced Hurricane Katrina victims, the nation's mayors are admirably rolling out welcome mats and offering up public housing apartments and federally subsidized homes.

The mayors of Detroit and Philadelphia each offered 1,000 homes. Chicago offered to house 1,500 people and Miami 3,000. Baltimore is making 236 public housing units available and Mayor Martin O'Malley has appealed to city landlords with available apartments to help out in exchange for rent payments guaranteed by the federal government.

Coming from cities with housing and fiscal problems of their own, these efforts are especially laudable. Affordable housing is in short supply around the country and poverty rates are rising. Detroit has a $300 million budget deficit and recently eliminated 906 city jobs. A corruption scandal in Philadelphia has overshadowed an ambitious urban renewal project. Large swaths of Miami's sizable immigrant communities live in poverty. In Baltimore, where thousands of empty apartments and boarded-up houses are uninhabitable, nearly 14,000 poor residents are on waiting lists for public housing or rental assistance vouchers.

These challenges raise a sensitive yet obvious question: How can cities help destitute outsiders and still address pressing needs at home? City Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano has no problem reconciling this dilemma. No matter how bad the living conditions of local residents, he says, newly homeless Katrina victims are far worse off. Giving hurricane victims who are public-housing-eligible priority over others on housing waiting lists is the right thing to do, period.

He's right, of course. But just as Baltimore is doing its part to help out during the crisis, so must the federal government. The Bush administration should set aside all planned funding cuts to public housing and affordable-housing programs and expand the rental assistance program to meet what was already a growing need before the hurricane. It should also ensure that public housing agencies are promptly and fairly compensated for the costs of housing hurricane victims, and give Baltimore the funds to renovate additional housing units.

These moves can have a beneficial impact on the short-term and long-term housing needs of hurricane victims without overburdening already stressed cities.

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