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 Washington Notebook

July 14, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 25

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


Already wary of some of the red tape that goes along with government-subsidized housing, private landlords see the cutbacks as all the more reason to abandon the system.

Douglas Rice,
director of housing and community development for Catholic Charities USA


Housing advocates fight cuts; McAuley to close; Ratzinger clarified; Amendment support from Fay

By Joe Feuerherd

For millions of Americans the awkwardly named "Section 8" program is the safety net. The program provides rental assistance that means the difference between the stability a roof and four walls provides and the disaster of homelessness.

And, now, the program is in genuine jeopardy.

Through a series of initiatives that hardly ever make headlines, the Bush Administration has proposed radical changes to the Section 8 program, the net result of which will be that fewer poor families will get housing assistance and the help they do get will be inadequate.

A Nixon-era creation, the Section 8 program is laced with jargon ("fair market rents," "annual adjustment factors," "payment standards"). And, as its name implies, it's bureaucratic -- the program is administered nationally by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which contracts with local Public Housing Authorities to run it locally.

The basic concept, however, is simple. The poorest of the poor (typically those earning less than 30 percent of their area's median income) sign up on a waiting list at the local Public Housing Authority. When they come to the top of the list (and prove they meet the eligibility standards) they are offered a "voucher," which they can use to rent an apartment in the private marketplace (that's why Republicans initially liked the concept). The tenant pays 30 percent of the rent and the voucher covers the rest.

The program worked politically because it united anti-poverty activists, the nation's 3,400-plus Public Housing Authorities, and private landlords, who appreciate the value of government-guaranteed rent.

This iron triangle of interests staved off previous attempts to gut the program and kept funding levels relatively stable through the worst days of federal cutbacks in other domestic programs.

But this year is different.

Through some bureaucratic maneuvering of its own, HUD announced in April that it is holding back Section 8 money local Public Housing Authorities had previously been told they would receive and had already budgeted. This decision was implemented retroactively to January -- throwing the program into administrative chaos at the local level and reducing the funds available.

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Already wary of some of the red tape that goes along with government-subsidized housing, private landlords see the cutbacks as all the more reason to abandon the system, says Douglas Rice, director of housing and community development for Catholic Charities USA. "This calls into question whether the payments under the system are going to be reliable," says Rice.

It's a problem in Albany, N.Y., says Deborah Damm O'Brien, executive director of Catholic Charities Housing in that diocese. Earlier this year, O'Brien and Albany's Public Housing Authority agreed that vouchers would be set aside to support a Catholic Charities-administered 49-unit Single Room Occupancy apartment building for formerly homeless mentally ill men and women. Now, it's unclear if the vouchers will be available. If they are not forthcoming, says O'Brien, she is not certain that the SRO program (which includes intensive services for the residents) will continue.

One of the goals of Section 8 is to provide low-income families with choice, the ability to live in areas with decent schools, transportation and public services. But that policy is undermined by the cuts, which risk forcing voucher recipients into the least desirable apartments in the less desirable areas of town, says Susan Walsh, Section 8 director for Maryland's Rockville Housing Enterprises. Meanwhile, the waiting list for assistance in the high-priced Washington suburb has been closed for six years, says Walsh.

Further, says Walsh, HUD now gives incentives to housing authorities to reduce "per unit costs." It is, naturally enough, more costly to serve the most needy. By emphasizing "per unit costs" over, for example, the number of very low-income households served, HUD is telling housing authorities to serve higher-income families. It's a practice known as "creaming," placing the easier-to-serve -- the cream -- above those whom the program is primarily designed to assist.

Finally, for next year, HUD has proposed that program guidelines be rewritten to allow housing authorities to serve higher-income people (formalizing the "per unit cost" incentives currently in place) and, most significantly, transforming the program into a "block grant." Under the block grant, Section 8 money would flow first to the states and then to local housing authorities, a recipe for further cuts and more creaming, say housing advocates.

Catholic Charities USA and a host of other anti-poverty and low income housing groups are lobbying Congress to force HUD to withdraw the new formula and replace it with the system that existed as recently as 2003. And they're working to forestall some of the worst aspect of the changes proposed for next year. A House Appropriations Subcommittee could vote on the issues as early as next week.


Speaking of housing cuts, the McAuley Institute is closing its doors Aug. 1.

In its 20 years of existence the Silver Spring, Maryland-based Mercy Sisters program helped create 20,000 affordable housing units in 49 states and the District of Columbia thorough its lending and technical assistance programs.

The decision to close, said a McAuley statement, was made "based on the uncertainty of securing long-term support to maintain McAuley as a national institution with a broad reach and multiple programs."


In a July 9 letter to Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, put to rest speculation that his views were misrepresented or that the U.S. bishops acted contrary to Vatican wishes in their recent statement on Catholics in political life. (Washington Notebook, July 7).

"The statement is very much in harmony with the general principles [of] 'Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion,' sent as a fraternal service -- to clarify the doctrine of the Church on this specific issue - in order to assist the American bishops in their related discussion and determinations," wrote Ratzinger.

The U.S. bishops' statement said that it was the responsibility of each bishop to decide in his own diocese how to respond to Catholic pro-choice politicians, including whether or not they should be denied communion. The 183-6 vote in favor of the statement made clear, however, that the vast majority of bishops do not favor withholding communion from pro-choice Catholic politicians.


How much do the U.S. Bishops support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage? President Bush raised that question, at least implicitly, during meetings with Vatican officials last month.

The answer: they care enough to have the bishops' conference general secretary, Msgr. William Fay, attend two press conferences in as many days with leading supporters of the proposed amendment.

"The failure to protect marriage at this important moment in our history will have devastating consequences for our society and our nation," Fay told a July 12 Capitol Hill press conference. He was joined there by Alliance for Marriage president Matt Daniels, Congress of Racial Equality chairman Roy Innis, and Walter Fauntroy, former D.C. delegate to Congress.

On July 13, Fay joined with Baptists, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, and a Presbyterian minister to repeat the same message. "More than two-thirds of the state legislatures have enacted measures to protect marriage, but marriage remains unprotected," said Fay. "Because Americans want that protection, there is every reason to believe that the amendment before the Senate today will be well-received and ranked by them as important as were the amendments introduced in the 19th and 20th centuries to protect the citizenship and voting rights of every man or woman born or naturalized in the United States."

The amendment fell far short of the two-thirds vote needed for Senate passage.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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