Shortchanged public housing

January 18, 2007

The availability of federally subsidized housing in Baltimore is going to shrink - yet again. City officials say that's the inevitable outcome of the Bush administration's continued draconian underfunding of public housing needs across the country.

The city's public housing authority says its federal operating subsidy for this year won't cover its expenses, which are higher because of utility costs. The shortfall means fewer dollars to repair and replenish a compromised housing stock. And people who can least afford market rents will have to fend for themselves. Congress shouldn't let this decision stand; the impact will be felt beyond public housing complexes.

In Philadelphia, the housing authority was forced to lay off 350 staffers; similar cuts were announced for Newark, N.J., Nashville, Tenn., and Minneapolis. Other housing authorities proposed closing food pantries, cutting employee benefits and reducing security.

With the lack of affordable housing a pressing concern in Baltimore, the federal cut may well mean more people living in substandard housing, in homeless shelters - or worse, on the street. It's not as though the need for public housing has diminished in Baltimore. City officials say their waiting list numbers 20,000 for an inventory that has declined to 14,000 units this year.

The average annual income of a public housing resident is $10,000 to $11,000; working families in public housing earn slightly more, on average between $14,000 and $15,000. Try renting a decent apartment or house on that.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors has urged Congress to intervene. The first opportunity will be in mid-February, when lawmakers take up the continuing resolution that is financing the government. They could also replenish housing authority funds in an emergency supplemental appropriation. At the very least, funding for public housing authorities should be restored to 2006 levels, which represents only 86 percent of operating expenses.

If Congress would cut by one day the cost of waging war in Iraq (more than $300 million), that would be more than enough for the nation's public housing authorities to pay their utility bills for the year.

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