While all eyes have been focused on the massive program cuts proposed for the Housing and Urban Development Department next year, a funny thing is happening to its budget this year -- it's taking a great leap upward, to the tune of 50 percent or so.
"There are some strange-looking numbers," Albert J. Kliman, director of HUD's Office of the Budget, told reporters Monday as he unveiled a dramatically humpbacked chart showing the department's budget authority.
The hump -- which is mirrored by outlays -- is caused by the department's ongoing problem over the tax-exempt status of the notes it uses to finance public housing development and modernization. Normally, there are about $15 billion of these outstanding, with $1 billion or so rolling over each month.
The wording of last year's tax bill raised questions about the notes' tax exemption, making it impossible to roll them over. HUD asked the Internal Revenue Service for a ruling last summer, but none has emerged.
As a result, HUD has been having to eat the notes as they come due. "Thus, in 1985 we are purchasing about $14 billion of the public housing notes, which runs up our borrowings from the Treasury and thus our budget authority to these astronomical figures," Kliman said.
The department argues that, in the long run, it is cheaper to do it this way, but officials of local public housing authorities fear that the result will be that these costs will become a lot more visible in the budget, allowing HUD to say it is spending more when it isn't.
"I think in the long term that they will give the appearance of appropriating the same amount of money, when in actuality we're going to get a whole lot less," said John Simon, general manager of the New York City Housing Authority. " . . . It's a perfect example of less is more." MORE ON FAIR HOUSING . . .
HUD Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr. has dusted off some amendments to the fair housing law that he pushed last year but that went nowhere. Pierce says they would give HUD more weapons to use in fighting housing discrimination.
Proposed are civil penalties of up to $50,000 for a first offense, and $100,000 for the second, in cases where a court finds that an act of discrimination has occurred. The amendments would allow the Justice Department to go to court on behalf of people in individual cases of discrimination.
Currently, Justice cannot take accused violaters to court unless it can allege that there has been a pattern of repeated acts of discrimination. The current law calls for HUD to try to resolve discrimination complaints through "informal methods of conference, conciliation and persuasion," according to the department. If these efforts are unsuccessful, the only recourse a person has for a single act of discrimination is to file a private suit.
Changing the law, Pierce has said, "keeps the burden of enforcement where it belongs: on the federal government rather than on the individual victim."
Another provision in the proposed amendments would extend the protection of the Fair Housing Act to handicapped persons. The change "is designed to enhance housing opportunities for the handicapped without requiring expenditures by landlords or inflicting unreasonable inconvenience on other tenants," according to HUD.
The proposed amendments also would empower courts to provide temporary relief to a person charging discrimination while conciliation efforts are in progress, to award attorneys' fees to a prevailing party -- except the U.S. government -- without regard to financial need, extend the statute of limitations for private suits from 180 days to two years, and confirm that a conciliation agreement may contain an agreement for binding arbitration.