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The struggle to pay rent is about to get harder

The federal Section 8 housing program helps low-income Americans afford decent places to live. But now it's about to be trimmed, meaning it will serve fewer people, or serve them less well - or both.

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 12, 2004


Bobby Parker was born and raised on the east side of the Potomac River. His dad was a mechanic and his mom a maid, but the home he grew up in was "just fine," he recalls.

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Still, "I never thought much about how they paid the rent," he admits. "It seemed no big deal."

In years since, however, as he has moved in and out of rentals, into shelters, out to the streets, over to friends' back porches, and onto his children's couches, he has given the subject much more thought. And, he says, scratching his bushy mane of hair, it's anything but "no big deal."

Sixty-five million Americans, or 24 percent of the population, have housing problems, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition in Washington. Some are elderly or unemployed. Others juggle two, even three low-paying jobs. Many are single moms. Some are disabled. All are scrambling, one way or another, to pay the mortgage or find the rent.

And it looks as though the scramble might get harder. President Bush's budget proposal for 2005 calls for cutting the Section 8 housing voucher program - the nation's principal low-income housing assistance program - by $1 billion, leaving it $1.6 billion short of what's required to maintain the program's current level of service.

While Mr. Bush's proposal has been known since January, the uproar over the cuts began two weeks ago, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released its guidelines and announced that, except for small adjustments for inflation, it has frozen rental rates at the amounts in effect last August, even if rents have gone up.

"The Bush administration is breaking a 30-year promise to help low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe housing," House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California said at a news conference last week.

Together with Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, a ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, Ms. Pelosi is introducing a bill to restore full funding by requiring HUD to use the previous voucher formula. Some Republicans, such as Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, have also been pressing the agency to relent.

The Section 8 program, started in 1976 helps families that make less than 50 percent of an area's median income (with some exceptions for the disabled and the elderly), by giving them vouchers that pay up to 70 percent of the rent for houses or apartments they choose.

Subsidies produce benefits

Today, about 2 million low-income Americans use the Section 8 program. The program has succeeded in deconcentrating poverty (by spreading those with low incomes among many different areas). It has also given families an opportunity to live in cleaner, safer neighborhoods, where their children can get a better education, and where they can be closer to employment opportunities.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, estimates that if all housing agencies coped with the funding cuts by assisting fewer households, they would have to shrink the program by 250,000 families next year and by about 600,000 families - roughly 30 percent of the entire program - by 2009.

Alternatively, if housing agencies coped with the funding cuts by raising rents, they would have to charge an average of about $850 more per family in 2005 and about $2,000 more per family in 2009, even though most of these families have incomes well below the poverty line. In practice, this would force beneficiaries to move to cheaper apartments or houses.

"Well, I don't know too much about budgets," says Parker, sitting on the front stoop of his friend's house in the Anacostia neighborhood, where he has been staying for the past few months. "But I'm no fool. If I am waiting for housing help, and the guys who are already getting help are in trouble, then I am in double trouble."