Another Domino Falling in the Fight to Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis

News Analysis

By Brian Davis

     In the 1990s, the federal government dramatically changed the landscape of many cities by restructuring the housing program of the Nixon/Ford era bureaucratically called the Project Based Section 8. This program provided private landlords funds to house low income people, and those that qualified paid only 30% of their income for rent. As the subsidy agreements expired, the government began restructuring. Many landlords were forced out or voluntarily left the program, those tenants who had lived peacefully for years were offered a housing voucher to use in place of the subsidy they had received. The Project Based program became very unstable, and created a great deal of fear in the urban communities.

     The housing vouchers offered by the federal government instead seemed like a safe bet. The voucher program, administered locally by the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, was stable or growing for years. It had become a sizable outlay for the federal government, and cities found two to six times as much demand than available vouchers. A few cities could not find a way to manage the program or were corrupt in the management of the vouchers (including Cleveland in the mid 1990s.) Cleveland worked out its problems, and has reached a point that thousands are waiting and every voucher is out on the street.

     Now the federal government is re-evaluating the voucher program. There is an all out assault on the program by the Bush administration on one of the few programs that serve poor people. Last year, there were attempts to put time limits on the vouchers and would have transformed the program in much the same way as the deconstruction of welfare under the Clinton administration. This proposal to transfer the program to state administration was shelved when they realized too many Congressional districts would rise up in revolt.

     This year the administration rebounding from the 2004 budget loss with the voucher program, they went forward in stripping the program anyway. In what can only be viewed as a unique and unprecedented interpretation of the budget resolution, they are providing housing authorities the same amount of money they were paying in the middle of last year. No cost increase for inflation or any new voucher holders that came onto the program, which has caused major problems with the current budget for many housing authorities, who are raising a stink in the media.

     The Cleveland situation as explained by Cathy Pennington, director of the local Housing Choice Voucher Program, at the Cuyahoga Affordable Housing Authority meeting, translated into an operational loss on every voucher issued. She described the remedy that the local office has worked out in order to balance the budget while not disrupting anyone’s housing through eviction or canceling contracts. They lowered the rents that the Housing Authority is willing to pay, which in the end makes it harder for tenants to have a choice to move into suburban communities. They also tapped into their reserves, which is bad public policy to utilize all the emergency funds that normally goes to sudden increases in utilities or other crises. Pennington said that at this time they were funded at $12 per month less than the cost of operating each voucher. While $12 sounds like a small gap that translates to $1.87 million budget shortfall for the agency over a year.

     While addressing the hole in their current Voucher program, the Bush administration has proposed a decrease in the 2005 budget and dramatic changes in policy that could mean the loss of 250,000 housing assistance vouchers in the United States. There is talk of stripping some of the targeting toward the poorest in our community and reducing inspections of units. Pennington was unwilling to identify the number of the total 13,000 vouchers currently issued in Cleveland that would need to be cut if the Bush administration budget passes. The CMHA voucher program is working to people into housing, while making plans for huge budget cuts. Pennington was optimistic that the dramatic changes proposed for the program would be denied by Congress, but was unsure that the massive budget cuts could be overturned.

Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio published July 2004 issue 65B