Shortage of low-income housing in US worsens

You can't sign up for low-cost public housing if you live in Dade County, Fla., Omaha, Neb., or Glendale, Ariz. The waiting lists are so long officials think it's pointless to add more names. That's not all. You can't sign up in any of these three communities for Uncle Sam's other big subsidized housing program, which lets you find an adequate apartment and pays what it determines you can't afford. The reason is the same: The wait is too long. When they stopped taking applications in Dade County the wait was 100 years.

These are extreme cases. But they illustrate a nationwide problem: There is not enough low-cost housing for Americans who need it -- those who live in poverty or perilously close to it.

``It's almost a criminal negligence on the part of the Congress and the administration,'' says an exasperated Rep. Henry Gonzalez. The Texas Democrat is one of Congress's chief exponents of a greater federal effort to help the poor obtain affordable housing.

By one measure the problem may be twice what it was five years ago. A survey for the National Low Income Housing Coalition concludes that low-income Americans today need 4 million more low-rent apartments. That's twice the housing gap of 1980, the group says.

In many communities the poor must now wait two or more years for the government to help them find a decent and affordable place to live. While marking time, many double up with friends in low-income housing; more than 300,000 such apartments in 39 surveyed communities are overcrowded, according to the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO). Richard Y. Nelson Jr., the organization's deputy director and legislative counsel, estimates that families are doubling up in 40 percent of the nation's 1.3 million public-housing units.

When the 1987 budget tussle is finally over, supporters of a greater federal effort in low-cost housing will wind up with at most the same amount of money spent last year. Mr. Gonzalez characterizes that level as ``an attempt to keep alive, just barely,'' the federal subsidy program. The House budget proposal would continue last year's funding level; the Senate's proposal would reduce the level.

The Reagan administration, under pressure to reduce the budget deficit, had sought no new funds for low-income subsidies. It has proposed instead to operate the subsidized housing programs, presumably at a lower level, with some money deferred from last year's budget.

Despite the pressure to build more apartments, and to repair delapidated public housing, the realities of today's fiscal problems mean that little prospect exists for greater funding.

Further, tax changes proposed by the Senate Finance Committee would remove some important financial incentives for developers to build low-cost housing, which some advocates of more such housing believe could have serious long-term consequences.

The biggest problem in providing enough low-cost housing ``is the constant demand for demolition'' of existing inexpensive apartments and houses without replacing them, Gonzalez says. Developers often want land occupied by low-cost housing to build higher-cost housing, or for commercial purposes.

In the past five years the federal share of low-cost housing subsidies has declined substantially. Six years ago Uncle Sam budgeted $30 billion for such subsidies; in the current fiscal year the budgeted amount is $10 billion, notes Barry Zigas, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

Unlike most other federal programs, annually budgeted funds for housing subsidies are spent over several years, 15 in most cases.

Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D) of New York says that ``given the needs,'' the current $10 billion level is ``certainly not close to enough.'' But he adds that a ``major problem . . . is to figure out the most cost-effective way to build housing.'' He views previous public-housing construction programs as too expensive.

Included in the housing bill now picking up speed in the House of Representatives is a proposal by Mr. Schumer to have the federal government replicate elsewhere in the United Sates an extraordinarily successful Brooklyn, N.Y., program that constructed low-cost housing. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Brooklyn case can be duplicated in other communities.

Another serious problem is the deteriorated condition of some existing public housing. In several large cities more than 1,000 units lie vacant for want of funds to repair them, even as waiting lists of applicants lengthen. The NAHRO survey found 37 communities reporting that they collectively require $3 billion to modernize some 126,000 units. Available federal funds, however, are short of that level, and likely to remain so.

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