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The Poor Lose Again

November 20, 1987

America's poor and homeless are once more likely losers as the White House and Congress battle over how best to reduce the immense budget deficits and reassure wobbly financial markets. That's doubly pathetic. Big spending on housing programs isn't what ran up the deficits in the first place.

At stake is major housing legislation. Sponsored by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), the comprehensive package would, among other things, stop the impending evictions of thousands of poor elderly tenants and poor families who live in privately owned low-income housing built with federal assistance. As things now stand, the apartments, 40,000 located in cities and 150,000 located in rural communities, will be rented at market rates if the owners prepay their mortgages, but the bill would prohibit prepayment for two years to preserve the low-income housing for at least that long.

The legislation would also expand home ownership by guaranteeing loans so poor, working people could buy or rehabilitate housing in distressed, urban neighborhoods. Elderly homeowners would benefit from a mechanism that safely allows them to convert their equity to cash without selling their home. The bill would also smooth out federal housing-voucher programs by providing more money so that local administrators could help more people actually find housing once they have the sought-after certificate. People in every state would benefit.

The cost, $15 billon for the current fiscal year and $15.8 billion for next year, prompted vigorous charges of budget-busting--the scarlet letter B that no congressman wanted to wear as the deadline loomed for the Gramm-Rudman automatic cost-cutting. Meanwhile, President Reagan, ever leery of ballooning budget deficits when the well-being of poor people is at stake, threatened to veto the legislation.

Although the price tag represented a compromise between both houses of Congress, the cost was large enough to require a waiver from congressional budget targets. That got the bill into trouble. Republican senators balked. Their rejection tossed the bill--and poor and homeless families--into limbo.

If Cranston's package miraculously comes back to life, it would be the first housing authorization approved since Reagan moved into the White House. The Administration has cut housing assistance substantially and shifted more and more of the burden of housing the poor onto already overburdened local governments.

Despite the blow, Cranston steadfastly refuses to give up. He is willing to modify the bill to try to get another vote reasonably soon. Several Senate Republicans may also come up with their own scaled-down proposals.

But time is running out on the current congressional session and the chances for another complicated compromise are shrinking.

The housing needs of poor and homeless men, women and children won't evaporate, however, if the federal housing assistance is sacrificed to hold down President Reagan's home-grown deficits.

Certainly, tough times require tough calls. And, every one ought to be willing to make some sacrifice to reduce the deficits during these volatile times. But the Reagan Administration shouldn't be so willing to assign the biggest sacrifices to the poorest Americans who already live in hard times.

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