Congress Set To Slash Fund For Public Housing Maintenance

Public housing has gotten a bad rap — in some cases, deservedly so. We’ve all read, I suppose, about notorious warehouses of the poor like Chicago’s crime-ridden, dilapidated Cabrini-Green.

But, as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reminds us, public housing comes in many sizes and types — from single-family dwellings to apartment complexes.

For about 1.2 million low-income seniors, families and individuals with disabilities, public housing means home and community.

It’s an endangered affordable housing option — and has been for some time.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan says that 105,000 affordable units have been lost through demolition or sale since 1995. Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project puts the figure at closer to 280,000.

Many reasons for this, including public policies that favor mixed-income developments and dispersal of the poor. These have probably contributed to the egregious neglect of many still-standing public housing facilities.

According to the latest assessment for HUD, public housing has an estimated $25.6 billion backlog of capital needs for repairs and renovations.

Yet Congress seems poised to slash the Public Housing Capital Fund, which provides grants that help local housing authorities keep (or make) their public housing livable.

Last spring, Congress approved just over $2 billion for the Fund — a miniscule down payment on backlogged and ongoing repair and rehab needs. This was a cut of nearly $500 million compared to Fiscal Year 2010.

The President requested about $4 million more for this fiscal year. Our spending-cutters in Congress would have none of it, as this table from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee for Transportation/HUD decided to cut the proposal by 25%, leaving the Capital Fund with $508 million less than it’s got now.

The Senate Appropriations Committee did just a bit better, with a cut of 22% or $165.1 million.

The full Senate recently approved this as part of a mini-omnibus budget bill, i.e., a package of three multi-agency appropriations bills, including Transportation/HUD.

What will happen next is hard to predict, but only from a process perspective.

Ordinarily, the full House Appropriations Committee and then the House itself would vote on the Subcommittee’s Transportation/HUD bill. Then House and Senate representatives would work out a compromise, which would go back to both chambers for final votes.

Or the majority leaders would decide they couldn’t possibly get all unfinished appropriations bills passed on time and instead roll them all up into one huge omnibus budget bill.

But these aren’t ordinary times.

The House Republican leadership is reportedly unenthusiastic about omnibus bills. And it might have difficulty getting its Tea Party wing to vote for one, even if it tried.

On the other hand, even its most right-wing members understand that the federal government must be funded at some level. And it won’t be unless Congress passes something — or some things — by November 18, when the current continuing resolution expires.

One way or the other, it’s hard to imagine that public housing won’t get shortchanged, as it has in the past.

And hard to imagine that we won’t see more public housing losses.

As everyone knows, housing deteriorates if its not maintained. Costs of repairing the damage grow exponentially. A leak in the roof turns into spreading rot. Faulty electrical wiring causes a fire. (Take it from one who knows.)

So, as in the past, public housing authorities are likely to decide to demolish neglected dwellings or sell them off to private parties who’ve got no obligation to restore them or replace them with housing that’s affordable for low-income renters.

Two years ago, 7.1 million very low-income households had what HUD terms “worst case needs.” In other words, they paid more than half their income for rent, lived in severely substandard housing or both.

This represents an increase of nearly 42% since 2001. We obviously need more federal funding to preserve public housing stock — and more federal housing vouchers too.

Congress has underfunded affordable housing programs for some time. Now it seems set to create even more worst cases.

More homelessness too.

NOTE: This is the second in a series on Fiscal Year 2012 HUD appropriations. The first — on housing voucher cuts — is here.

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