Changes Imminent at the Department of Housing

            The election of a Republican majority is expected to bring gale-force winds of change to entitlement programs in the United States, and at the eye of this storm is the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

            In 1993, Henry Cisneros, Secretary of HUD, and Assistant Secretary Andrew Cuomo brought a broad vision to the department of reform and expansion. They brought a plan of working closer with local communities to promote programs that were viewed as successful and pruning those viewed as wasteful.

            After the death of a homeless individual in 1994 outside the HUD headquarters in Washington, Cuomo said in a press release, “The Secretary’s number one priority is fighting homelessness.” And, in fact, the fiscal year 1995 HUD homeless budget proposal was doubled to more than $1.7 billion.

            HUD has always had a significant impact on the Cleveland community, according to Lucy Loughead of the Cleveland HUD office. The Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Administration, public housing facilities, and 28 agencies that attempt to find housing are all overseen by HUD. Comprehensive Management empowerment money is funded through HUD. Mortgage insurance and the Federal Housing Authority for low income housing is a HUD program. In addition, homes are acquired and sold back in the market through HUD. Many homeless service organizations receive partial funding from HUD.

            Last year a slick package was put together called “Continuum of Care," which outlines a reorganization of McKinney Homeless Assistance Funds to better serve the needs of the community. States and localities would be given a lump sum of money and the guidelines of providing a safety net, or Continuum of Care, specifically for the homeless. Included would be outreach programs, emergency shelter, transitional housing, and supportive and permanent housing in conjunction with job training, education and substance abuse programs. The plan was hailed by homeless advocates as innovative and resourceful, according to Bill Faith, Director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO).

            “In November, the whole playing field changed. The Clinton administration is now on the defensive,” said Jim Cain, Assistant Director of COHHIO.

The press release for the 1996 HUD budget was 18 pages long. Only seven lines mentioned the homeless. With the change in the 104th Congress, Cisneros relegated homelessness from top priority to seven lines of text.

            The plan “fundamentally changes federal housing policy and the department’s structure,” said Cisneros. HUD proposes to consolidate 60 separate programs into three broad performance funds or block grants.

            Fred Karnas, Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), said, “The President’s budget sets back several years of steady progress in focusing federal attention on the needs of the growing number of homeless, men, women and children in this country.” NCH claims that three block grants will harm the homeless population by making it harder for the homeless to access housing.

            “In too many cities, NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) and mean-spirited policies have made life unbearable for homeless people. By giving decision-making regarding homeless funds to state and local elected officials with few, if any, strings attached, the President’s budget feeds into this thinking and ultimately will increase homelessness and misery,” said Karnas.

            Various Republican congressional representatives and the Office of Management and Budget have suggested dismantling the Department of HUD. According to Faith, it appears that this block granting proposal may be a preemptive step to stave off HUD's total annihilation.

            Faith added, “I’m concerned about restructuring the McKinney targeted services for homeless people. When [funds for homeless services] are thrown into bigger block grants then they won’t be targeted to help the homeless.” If the administration’s proposal for HUD reorganization passes, housing development projects will have to compete with shelters and transitional housing providers for a share of the federal pie. This is similar to the lion, the boa constrictor, and the alligator all sitting down at the table to calmly share the prized young antelope. “The real problem is not HUD or the reorganization,” said Faith. “We need to focus on the appropriations process.” During the week of February 27th, the Congressional appropriations committee proposed a recission of fiscal year 1995 funds of $7.3 billion of already committed money. Faith said, “It is unprecedented move. It scares me. HUD is taking the lion's share of the budget cuts.”

            “This is much worse than we thought it would be,” commented Faith. This means that no one on the Section 8 low income housing waiting list will get housing this year, and funds already committed to projects could be terminated.

            Faith claims that Cleveland could do well with local control of federal block grants in comparison to other cities, while in conservative or entitlement-hostile states and communities “we might not be in such great shape.” The volatility of the local political climate could make homeless services change dramatically and quickly. Instead of doing battle with one organization (HUD) for social change, if the HUD reinvention plan passes, the battle for services will take place in hundreds of communities around the country.

            The president of the NCH board of directors, Anita Beaty, said, “We are already seeing experiments with moving federal decision-making from Washington to local governments and the result is not often good." The local governments have refused to adequately address the needs of those who are poor or without political clout. Beaty adds, “Without strong targeting language, and protection for fair housing and civil rights, the Administration’s proposals will further widen the gap between haves and have-nots in American society.”

            “By reducing HUD’s 60 programs to three, HUD has essentially drawn a huge bull’s-eye on its building for Congressional budget cutters to shoot at,” said a NCH press release. Cisneros said, “HUD’s survival is critical to America’s future. The country needs a federal commitment to communities, to its cities, to affordable housing, and to the housing needs of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens.”                          

            The HUD wagon train seems to running scared after being spooked by the Republicans. Many will fall off before the reigns are again brought under control and calm heads prevail.

 Copyright by the Homeless Grapevine published issue 9 Spring 1995