A Wake-Up Call on Housing and Homelessness

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following is an excerpt from Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” column.

“They tweet and they titter. They chat and they chitter. But the bear snores on.”
— from Bear Snores On

Inside the Beltway, the weather has turned cold, trees are mostly bare, and sounds and voices outside are distinct as more and more people remain indoors.

On Capitol Hill, conversations are focused on billions and trillions, cliffs and sequestrations, and theories and suppositions about ongoing negotiations. A thankful media cheers on, discovering a new horserace to replace the one just ended.

But for too many people  —  most of whom receive little or no attention in this town — there is nothing vague, abstract, or racy about these budget decisions.

Amy Clark is the communications director for the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), a nonprofit organization working to ensure that low-income people have decent, affordable homes. She says that NLIHC staff members now regularly receive anxious e-mails from people living in public housing, or who have vouchers they use for rental assistance and whose homes are on the line.

“They are trying to figure out what Congress is doing, and what sequestration is about,” Clark tells me.

A woman with cancer living in New York City — where her voucher is already at risk due to cuts — wrote, “It seems that no one in NYC knows what is going on with the Section 8 voucher program — not even Section 8, Mayor Bloomberg’s office, State Offices, HUD — all these offices I called and no one who answers the phone knows what is going on.”

“Are those of us who have Section 8 in danger of losing our apartments?” asked another person.

“These are individuals who have no other means of living affordably,” says Clark. “If you lose your voucher, and then end up paying half or three-quarters of your income for housing, what do you have left for medical expenses, or for anything for that matter? Sequestration is a really serious personal issue for a lot of people.”

Indeed, the Campaign for Housing and Community Development Funding (CHCDF) — a group of seventy-four national organizations across the country — estimates that the 8.4 percent cut to housing and community development programs that would occur in January under sequestration would result in: a $1.6 billion cut in tenant-based rental assistance, with 185,000 households losing assistance; an $830 million cut in project-based rental assistance, with more than 92,000 households losing their housing if the cuts aren’t restored; a $180 million cut to homeless assistance grants — nearly 146,000 people would be homeless instead of housed; a $32 million cut to housing for the elderly, with 114,000 households receiving reduced unit maintenance and supportive services; a $28 million cut to housing opportunities for persons with AIDS, resulting in more than 4,700 households losing their housing; and a $13 million cut in housing for persons with disabilities, leading to more than 24,500 households receiving reduced unit maintenance and supportive services.

At a time when there are only thirty affordable and available rental units for every 100 extremely low income households, and low-income housing programs serve only about one of four people who qualify for them, sequestration would negatively affect more than 440,000 households currently receiving assistance.

Further, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes in a paper released this week, funding for housing has already been cut by 6 percent, or $2.5 billion, since 2010. Meanwhile, the number of low-income renter households paying housing costs of more than 50 percent of their income — a financial burden associated with an increased risk of homelessness — has risen by 14 percent over the past two years.

“Federal rental assistance programs have been treading water, while the need for assistance has been climbing dramatically since 2007,” report author Douglas Rice, a senior policy analyst at CBPP, told me.

These housing cuts seem all the more foolish when 82 percent of voters — including 76 percent of Republicans — want Congress and the White House to deliver a plan to cut child poverty in half within ten years. A Children’s HealthWatch study recently published in the American Journal of Public Healthconcluded: “…the association between housing insecurity and measures of children’s health and development provide evidence of the vulnerability of children who have insecure housing but who are not homeless…. Governmental action and community investment in expanding the supply of affordable housing, increasing funding for housing assistance programs, and stabilizing families in uncrowded housing [that] they can afford can alleviate housing insecurity. Protecting families with young children from being economically forced into crowded conditions and frequent moves should be a policy priority.”

With child poverty already having an economic cost of about $550 billion per year (or 3.8 percent of GDP) in increased healthcare costs, worse educational outcomes, lower worker productivity, and increased criminal justice expenditures, these cuts seem short-sighted at best — especially since affordable housing is associated with increased educational attainment, improved health and increased employment access.

And yet, according to Clark, every year funding for these housing assistance programs is essentially “up for grabs” in Congressional appropriations.

“What we are seeing with sequestration is more extreme and more in the public eye but it happens literally every year,” she says.

That’s why the NLIHC and other housing advocates are pushing for a long-term solution — funding for the National Housing Trust Fund. Signed into law in 2008 by President George W. Bush, it was designed to take the commitment to affordable housing out of the appropriations process by providing a dedicated source of funding. Ninety percent of the funding would be used for the production, preservation, rehabilitation, or operation of rental housing, and 75 percent of those funds must benefit extremely low-income households.

The only problem is this: Congress hasn’t appropriated a single dollar to it. President Obama has sought $1 billion in funding for four straight years to no avail.

“It would be a good start and show that we can do it,” says Clark. “But we are looking for $30 billion annually to make it effective nationally.”

In the short-term, among the recommendations in the CBPP paper is passing the Senate’s version of the fiscal year 2013 HUD funding bill that “averts cuts in the number of families receiving rental assistance, [and] provides modest funding increases for other priorities such as assistance for homeless individuals and families….” The CBPP also suggests that any deficit deal that doesn’t include “substantial new revenues” will force even deeper cuts to rental assistance than will occur under sequester. Translation: no deal — as terrible as that would be for affordable housing — is better than a bad deal.

But in the long-run, advocates say, there needs to be a fundamental shift in federal housing policy.

“If we’re serious about solving homelessness and ending poverty, we’re going to have to put real money into the National Housing Trust Fund,” says Clark. “That means doing things that were unthinkable before the fiscal cliff — like reforming the mortgage interest deduction and using those savings for housing for the lowest income people.”

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