The federal government must roll back cuts in housing aid for the needy

June 7, 2013

You may think “sequestration” simply means trimming the federal budget by cutting salaries and overhead. But consider one dictionary definition of sequestration: “removal or separation; banishment or exile; confiscation or seizure.”

For tens of thousands of low-income working families in the Washington-Baltimore region about to lose part of their housing assistance because of sequestration, these words accurately express the painful reality they face.

Sequestration is mostly an abstraction to many Americans, for whom it means intermittently reduced levels of service and occasional annoying inconvenience. For companies doing business with government, it means some reduction in revenue. Undoubtedly, every federal agency is trying to trim expenditures without causing widespread public hardship, jeopardizing security or drastically compromising its fundamental mission.

But for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, meeting sequestration requirements means seriously compromising its mission. HUD’s budget cuts will adversely affect financial assistance for households that depend on apartment rental vouchers or occupy public housing.

At Montgomery County’s annual Affordable Housing Conference last month, attendees learned that almost 32,000 households in the Washington-Baltimore region will lose financial support because of sequestration. Some households will be forced to move to smaller homes, while others will have to spend more on rent than the standard 30 percent of household income they now pay.


(Illustration by Roger Lewis)

Thus, the nation’s neediest are about to become even needier. Moreover, given the steadily shrinking supply of affordable housing, the number of households in need will continue growing at an ever-faster rate.

This worsening housing situation and the suffering it engenders epitomize the law of unintended consequences, showing how ill-conceived, shortsighted and unjust across-the-board sequestration is proving to be.

Fiscal burdens and hardships are not being shared fairly by all Americans, and as usual those at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid are suffering the most. Understandably, the view of the needy is that once again, less is trickling down to them in America’s trickle-down economy.

The federal establishment should be ashamed, but can atone somewhat for its dysfunctional governance. Congress and the Obama administration can set aside one-size-fits-all thinking and homogenized budget cutbacks, as they already have done selectively with other agencies and programs.

As a fiscally prudent as well as socially compassionate act, they should immediately revoke federal housing cuts and continue HUD’s funding for rental vouchers and public housing at previous levels. This would avoid making an already serious problem worse.

Yet in the long term, more is necessary for complete atonement. As the economy improves, Congress and the administration must revisit policies and take new steps to increase the supply of affordable housing. This requires not only increased public-sector funding to acquire, finance and build housing, but also more incentives for private-sector investment in affordable housing.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland. His cartoon may be seen at www.washingtonpost.com/realestate.

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