by Lynda Carson
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n a political game of chicken over the federal budget, Congress and the Obama administration have failed to stop the massive $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration that took effect on March 1.
The Republicans and Democrats blame each other for the situation, but the worst losers in the political squabble will be the poor, elderly and disabled throughout the Bay Area and across the nation.
The huge budget cuts are expected to shred the safety net, and threaten several hundred thousand households with the loss of their federal housing assistance, and Section 8 housing choice vouchers.
People across the nation have been fighting back and speaking out against the destructive budget cuts taking effect, but their voices have fallen on deaf ears.
Locally in Berkeley, Eleanor Walden of the Berkeley Gray Panthers said, “On February 27, at their regular monthly meeting, the Gray Panthers distributed postcards addressed to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, asking her to stop the massive impending budget cuts scheduled to take effect in March.” Many members of the Gray Panthers “signed and mailed the postcards that very same day,” said Walden.
The Marin Independent Journal reported that Lewis Jordan, executive director of the Marin Housing Authority, said the budget cuts could have a devastating effect on the housing agency because nearly all of the housing authority’s revenue comes from the federal government, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Alyson Silkowski, a researcher for The Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, a nonprofit research organization based in New York City, reported that 125,000 low-income households will lose their rental assistance through the Housing Choice Voucher Program (previously known as Section 8). In addition, more than 100,000 homeless people will lose their emergency shelter or short-term rental subsidies and several thousand households stricken by HIV/AIDS will lose their federal housing assistance.
On Feb. 28, 2013, the day before the staggering cuts were scheduled to take place, Silkowski reported that “sequestration will increase homelessness nationwide by over one-third (37 percent).”
Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan stated that “sequestration will place more than 230,000 men, women, and children at substantial risk of homelessness.”
Yet, these figures underestimate the number of families put at risk of homelessness due to sequestration, because the cumulative impact of other budget cuts triggered by sequestration will also cause great increases in homelessness.
Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recently warned that approximately 70,000 low-income children and their families will lose access to Head Start and Early Head Start programs, and another 30,000 childcare subsidies to low-income families will be eliminated. Losing access to child care can make it virtually impossible for homeless parents to remain employed.
Due to the massive budget cuts now taking effect, housing assistance programs being administered by public housing authorities and other housing agencies all across the nation may be forced to raise the rents way more than low-income households can possibly afford. Or, in an even worse scenario, housing officials may be forced to take away housing vouchers from many low-income families. These housing vouchers are the only way that many low-income families are able to avoid becoming homeless.
In its own assessment of the dire situation, HUD estimates that nearly 250,000 voucher holders will lose their housing if sequestration takes effect, resulting in nearly a million people losing their federal housing assistance and being placed at risk of homelessness.
Low-income tenants in the Housing Choice Voucher Program [formerly Section 8] pay 30 to 40 percent of their monthly income for rent, and the rest of the rent is paid to the landlord by the program. After many years of cutbacks that have torn holes in the housing safety net, most people eligible for federal housing assistance never receive the help they need to keep from becoming homeless.
In many large cities, thousands of low-income families who qualify for federal housing assistance can no longer even get on the waiting list. In city after city, waiting lists for federal housing vouchers have been shut down because so many thousands of families have already been on a waiting list for many years.
The Oakland Housing Authority administers 13,259 Section 8 vouchers in Oakland, owns and operates about 3,300 conventional public housing units, and assists about 10 percent of Oakland’s low-income families with their housing needs.
San Francisco has 8,611 Section 8 units, Berkeley has 1,939, the Housing Authority of Alameda County has 6,097, Richmond has 1,750, Marin County has 2,145, and Contra Costa County Housing Authority has 6,763 units.
The scheduled catastrophic spending cuts are a grave threat to the federal housing programs administered by HUD. The cuts include $1.53 billion to be slashed from HUD’s tenant-based rental assistance (i.e., the Housing Choice Voucher Program), and $772 million in reductions to project-based rental assistance.
The inhumane nature of these cutbacks can be understood by looking at whose housing is jeopardized. For instance, an additional $325 million will be cut from the public housing operating fund, resulting in damaging reductions in housing programs for disabled people, people with AIDS and senior housing programs for elderly households.
The spending cuts will affect local housing programs in Berkeley, San Francisco, Alameda, Richmond, Alameda County, Contra Costa County, throughout California, and all across the nation.
The City of Los Angeles faces a massive, $48-million spending cut to their Section 8 housing voucher program. According to the Los Angeles Times, in a report submitted to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Jan. 3, 2013, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana stated that an estimated 15,000 families that rely on housing vouchers would see their rent expenses increase on average by $116 per month from sequestration’s automatic, across-the-board spending cuts scheduled for March 1.
Additionally, the Housing Authority of Los Angeles County seeks HUD approval to terminate rental assistance for 1,800 families if the spending cuts take place, or to raise the rents on 21,132 households.
The City of Long Beach may lose about $15 million to operate its housing assistance programs once the budget cuts take effect. And officials at the Housing Authority of the County of San Bernardino state that they will lose around $5.5 million in budget cuts from their annual budget of $110 million.
In Sacramento, the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency will have to take back about 950 vouchers from households in the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program.
In the state of Washington, “cuts to the Homeless Assistance Grant account would result in approximately 100,000 more people on the streets if the spending cuts go into effect,” said recently retired Rep. Dick Norman, D-Wash.
According to other reports across the nation, more than 900 families in Houston are at risk of losing their housing vouchers when the budget cuts take effect. In Hawaii, 3,500 low-income households received notice that they may be at risk of losing their housing assistance vouchers.
HUD has been notifying cities and public housing authorities across the nation to prepare for huge spending cuts to their housing assistance programs due to sequestration.
More than 900 organizations nationwide have spoken out against the massive spending cuts. In a call to action, activists continue to urge low-income families in the federally subsidized housing programs to immediately contact their representatives and to urge the Obama administration and Congress to reverse sequestration’s automatic spending cuts.
Among those most threatened by the spending cuts are the people least able to survive without HUD housing programs. According to the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, 303,499 seniors rely on Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers for affordable housing. Section 8 housing is also home to 458,124 households with disabled family members. And 59 percent of Section 8 households are families with children — more than 2,357,977 children in total — with an average annual family income of $11,049.
Lynda Carson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org