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Housing Aid Needs Shelter

April 05, 2004

It's not surprising that one of the first federal programs on the chopping block this year is Section 8, the rental assistance program. Its recipients, some of the nation's most socially disenfranchised people, have little lobbying clout in Washington. Created as a Depression-era safety net in 1937 and expanded by the first Bush administration in 1990, the nation's primary effort to help the poor find and pay for housing serves nearly 2 million families nationwide. They pay 30% of their incomes on rent, usually in private housing, and the government subsidizes the rest.

The House of Representatives is debating whether to approve the Bush administration's proposal to cut the $16.4-billion program by more than $1 billion in fiscal year 2005. The result would be more than 12% below the funding needed to reach the same number of families that Section 8 served in the previous budget year. The cuts are billed as reform, but their effect will almost certainly be to leave families in slumlord rooms or on the street. In L.A., which has some of the least-affordable housing in the nation, the cuts would hit hard, affecting thousands.

Acting Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson acknowledges that the administration is proposing "some reductions" but says the goal is more high-minded than just budget-cutting. Local housing agencies would be ranked by HUD each year. Those that move the most recipients from Section 8 apartments into unsubsidized homes and jobs would be "rewarded with additional fees for administering the program." Others would be held accountable for "poor performance," as yet undefined.

Housing experts say that Jackson's plan could end up serving the least needy: healthy, able, temporarily unemployed people who can quickly move off welfare rolls. In order to minimize penalties for "poor performance," housing authorities are likely to resist aiding those who cannot be easily moved onward -- chronically mentally ill homeless people, for example.

By pushing radical and untested changes in Section 8, the administration and its allies in the House may let their idea of "perfect" be the enemy of the proved good. The House should reverse the administration's Section 8 cuts long enough to shore up the existing safety net first.

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To take action: Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) is chairman of the committee that is now considering the Section 8 cuts: (202) 225-6265 or bobney@mail.house.gov. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.): (202) 225-2976 or dhastert@mail.house.gov.

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