It fell to housing official William Murphy to face the hearing room packed with Montgomery County's poor -- disabled men and women, low-wage parents with sleeping children in their arms -- and to break the bad news.

Because of new limits on federal funding, he explained, many of the county's struggling renters are likely to have to start paying $25, $100 even $200 more each month for their apartments.

His words drew a collective gasp from the crowd.

"If we didn't have to do this, believe me, we wouldn't do it," Murphy, rental assistance director for the county's Housing Opportunities Commission, told the audience. "We're only doing this because we need to."

Bukika Holmes -- a student, mother, and worker still wearing her Krispy Kreme cap and badge -- was stunned. "I just make it by the skin of my teeth," she said later.

Across the Washington region and the nation, housing authorities say they are being forced to increase the burden on low-income renters, cut off access to rent vouchers or take other measures to cope with changes to the nation's leading affordable housing program.

In April, the federal government capped the amount of reimbursement it sends local housing agencies that subsidize rents for low-income families. On Friday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released new rent guidelines for the program, effectively reducing the value of most vouchers used in this region.

Beyond likely rent increases, local officials say the federal cuts could leave tenants with fewer choices of where to use their vouchers, forcing them back into the poorest neighborhoods and re-creating the concentration of poverty that the Housing Choice Voucher program was designed to counteract.

"We might as well take the word 'choice' out of it," said Peggy Pimentel, director of Arlington's program and chairwoman of a regional housing committee. "This will create a hardship for families."

In an interview Friday, Michael Liu, assistant secretary at HUD, defended the changes, saying that costs for the voucher program are out of control. "The bottom line is we want to get the best hold we can on reality," he said.

The $14.4 billion voucher program, long known as Section 8, helps about 2 million households nationwide -- including 30,000 poor families and disabled and elderly people in the District and it suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.

The vouchers are intended to close the gap between the rent on a modest apartment and what a poor family can afford. The family contributes 30 percent of its income toward the rent, and the voucher makes up the difference.

But in the past year, the federal government has decided that local housing authorities will be reimbursed based on a formula rather than for actual costs. Then last week, HUD posted a new schedule of fair market rents, the department's assessment of what homes cost across the country.

In the Washington region, HUD determined that the rent for studio and one-bedroom apartments had increased slightly, but that it was down 2.5 percent for a two-bedroom unit and 7 percent for a three-bedroom.

That effectively reduces the federal reimbursement for the larger units, which account for two-thirds of the vouchers issued in this region.

"Most housing authorities are going to have to take some dramatic action," said Mike Finkle, director of housing management for Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which has 3,146 vouchers in use. "Do you reduce the amount of vouchers you administer, or do you shift the burden onto tenants?"

The District is considering the former option; Fairfax and Montgomery counties are considering the latter. In Arlington, officials are discussing both.

But housing officials acknowledge there are risks.

In some cases, the voucher is the only thing that stands between a working poor family, or an elderly or disabled person and homelessness, said Sharan London, executive director of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless.

"We're really worried that people will lose their housing," London said. "Increasing rents and decreasing the amount of vouchers will exacerbate the homeless problem."

A modest two-bedroom apartment can rent for about $1,200 a month -- a rate more than three times the amount affordable to a fulltime worker earning minimum wage, housing officials say.

Regionwide, "we have 50,000 families on the waiting list. Ten thousand of those families are homeless," said Gary P. LeBlanc who directs the District's voucher program. "The numbers are astronomical, and the funding is limited."

After HUD announced the caps in the spring, the District housing authority found itself faced with a $6.6 million shortfall that could have left as many as 600 of the district's 9,600 voucher recipients without assistance.

The District managed to win back about $5 million in funding and make up the rest of the shortfall with money from emergency reserves, LeBlanc said. But the reduction in fair market rent levels came as another blow. "It takes a bad situation and makes it worse," LeBlanc said.

He and other local officials are looking toward the year ahead with foreboding. HUD's secretary, Alphonso Jackson, has criticized the voucher program, deeming it "broken" and too costly. While the House and Senate have rejected deep cuts requested by the Bush administration, spending for the voucher program in the coming year remains uncertain.

The District is considering shelving vouchers as they turn over to save money.

In Montgomery County, housing officials have been discussing plans to lower, by roughly 10 percent, the payment standards they use to assist with rent; that would increase the minimum rent contribution from $25 to $50 a month.

The changes would need formal approval by the Housing Opportunities Commission. The program serves about 5,300 households, with another 10,000 families and individuals on the waiting list.

"We have 5,300 families, 5,300 different situations," Murphy said.

Pondering the news, Julia Gaskins, mother of two, considered her own situation.

Her two sons' mental health problems have made it hard for her to keep a job, she said, so she has often turned to her church for help with her small share of her rent.

"There is no way this is going to work out," she concluded.