SOME PRETTY IMMODEST claims were made for the housing bill the House passed last week. They came mostly from members who had amendments adopted. "For the first time in perhaps decades the House has agreed to change the status quo of assisted housing in this country," said one of them, Rep. Steve Bartlett. "A giant leap forward," said Rep. Jack Kemp.
In fact, it's a pretty dreary bill that would perpetuate a standoff on national housing policy for the poor that has existed throughout the Reagan administration. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the government undertook or expanded three major forms of aid to the poor, all in kind instead of cash. They dealt with health (Medicaid), hunger (food stamps) and shelter (the so-called Section 8 housing program). They grew very rapidly, surpassing and to some extent supplanting traditional welfare programs and now account for $1 out of every $20 the government spends.
The Reagan administration has moved to check the growth of all three. It has had its greatest success in housing. The Section 8 program, begun by the Nixon administration to tidy up the housing programs of the Johnson era, works through contracts. A builder puts up or a landlord designates some housing units for the poor. The rents are agreed upon. The tenants pay part, depending on income, and the government pays the rest. Contracts typically run for 15 years.
In the 1970s, successive administrations and Congress fell into the habit of adding several hundred thousand such units to the program every year. In no one year were costs prohibitive, but they accumulated. By the end of the Carter administration there was concern about the build-up in both the executive branch and Congress. The Reagan administration tried to stop it, urging a shift to housing vouchers -- a less costly and in some ways more controllable but less generous system instead.
The result? The costliest variant of the Section 8 program, involving new construction, has been taken off the books. The rest of the program remains, but the growth rate is down; fewer than 100,000 units are now added per year. A limited voucher program has also been authorized. Housing prices have generally climbed faster than incomes. The number of people in need of housing assistance, measured by income or by percentage of income paid for rent, is much greater than the assistance available. There is no agreed-upon policy in either party for meeting that need. Beginning in just a few years some of the earliest Section 8 units will begin to fall out of the program; the 15-year contracts will be up. Meanwhile, the programs to encourage housing construction for the poor through the tax code are also threatened by tax reform.
The new housing bill does not break out of this depressing pattern. Mr. Bartlett won House assent to an amendment to stop building public housing units and to use the money to rehabilitate existing units instead. But public housing construction was already close to a standstill. Mr. Kemp won approval of an amendment under which public housing units could be sold to their occupants at a fraction of their market value. That satisfies ideology much more than national need.
For most poor families, housing is the highest cost. We haven't, as a society, found a way to help them meet it. This bill doesn't do it, either. It marks time, and the problem it is meant to solve remains.