(Un)affordable Housing

In 1969, Republican Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts saw a need to keep public housing in the United States affordable for poor people. Since then, under the so-called Brooke Amendment, public-housing tenants and recipients of Section 8 federal housing assistance have paid no more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

If some members of former Senator Brooke's party have their way, the House will vote to repeal that provision as early as this week. The repeal would allow local housing authorities to charge whatever rents they choose.

Supporters say the repeal would attract higher-income working people to projects. Housing officials contend that attracting such a mix of incomes would help them offset shortfalls in federal operating subsidies.

They're right: A broader income mix provides stability. Congress has already taken action to achieve this aim. Earlier this year it passed a law allowing housing authorities to give preference to working applicants. President Clinton also recently signed a law that gives housing agents new authority to screen and evict problem tenants - with the goal of making public housing safer and more attractive to families of the working poor.

But now some House members are seeking total deregulation, which could lead to rent hikes and gentrification. Without a 30-percent limit, the poorest residents may well be forced into homelessness.

These lawmakers seem to have forgotten that public housing exists for those who can't afford the private market.

The Senate has come up with a better-reasoned, more humane alternative. Its legislation preserves the Brooke Amendment for residents who earn less than half the median income in their area. It also reserves two-fifths of all apartments for families below 30 percent of the median area income.

Some House Republicans have sided with their party predecessor, Senator Brooke, who held a news conference in Washington to urge continued support for his amendment. These congressmen say they will try to stop the repeal by amending the House bill or will push for adoption of the fairer Senate version when the issue comes before a joint conference committee later in the year. As they say, the version before the House goes too far.

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