Audra Bean has some serious problems with her apartment. It has roaches, but no heat or air conditioning. The closet doors are busted. The landlord is abusive. And the rent is crazy: $460 for a tiny one-bedroom in a converted welfare motel.
Right now, though, Bean's most serious problem with her dingy apartment is that she might lose it. She fell behind on her rent in August after she was fired from her job as a health aide: Her 2-year-old son was having seizures, and she kept missing work to take care of him. She quickly found a new job as a cashier on a riverboat casino, but her landlord is trying to evict her anyway. She wouldn't mind, if only she could find a new place she could afford.
"Finding a job, that's easy. But it's impossible to find an apartment," she says. "I can't even find another nasty place. I can't find anything at all."
By all accounts, the nation is mired in a severe affordable-housing crisis, with record low vacancy rates, rents rising at twice the rate of inflation, interminable waiting lists for federal aid and an unprecedented 5.3 million families paying half their incomes in rent. So in a startling turnaround last week -- as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo clamored about the worst shortages in history, and Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush warned his party not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor -- congressional Republicans agreed to drop demands for cuts and prepared to approve one of the most generous housing budgets in years.
While Republicans and Democrats are touting the deal as a key first step to easing the crisis, both sides agree that this modest budget boost will barely dent the problems facing the nation's Audra Beans.
In many ways, it was a signature moment for this new era of swelling budget surpluses and tight budget caps. Somehow, government budget analysts discovered $750 million worth of untapped housing funds last week, an unexpected windfall that could bring St. Louis about 1,900 new housing vouchers. But those vouchers -- guarantees that the government will subsidize rents in private apartments that cost more than 30 percent of a tenant's income -- would reach only one of every 20 "worst-case" St. Louis residents who either live in unsanitary apartments or pay half their income in rent. Congress has shown no inclination to provide any more.
"We've still got a terrible shortage of housing in this country," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), chairman of a housing subcommittee. "We haven't solved that yet."
The last-minute deal will include 60,000 new vouchers -- fewer than the 100,000 requested by the president but a far cry from the GOP proposal of zero -- and modest increases for running and renovating public housing projects. It will also help protect thousands of elderly residents whose subsidized apartments are being converted to market-rate housing. And it will preserve funding for business-friendly "empowerment zones" in urban areas such as St. Louis.
Advocates and Democrats are ecstatic, but even after this deal, only one in three American families poor enough to qualify for rental aid will receive it. And while the long-running economic boom has reduced unemployment to record lows, it has also raised rents to record highs, making it much harder for these families to afford housing without government help.
"Obviously, this is nowhere near what we need to serve everyone in need," said a high-ranking HUD official. "But it's a modest step in the right direction. We weren't going to get any more out of this Congress. Not a chance."
This is partly because of HUD's lousy reputation on Capitol Hill, where many lawmakers think of most housing programs as liberal sinkholes for taxpayer dollars. St. Louis, for example, was ranked last year as the worst-managed housing authority in the nation; its new director, Cheryl Lovett, calls her department "a total mess." And many Republicans are furious that after they finally approved 50,000 new vouchers for families leaving welfare last year -- the first new vouchers since 1994 -- HUD did not distribute them until last week.
But the main reason for the reluctance is that housing programs are incredibly expensive; even vouchers, by far the least costly form of aid, cost about $6,000 per year. And when market rents rise, those programs become more expensive, making it harder for Congress to serve even the families already receiving assistance. In 1997, Congress and the president reached a balanced-budget agreement with strict spending limits, and while there have been some creative efforts to sidestep those limits in recent months, housing is nowhere near the top of the congressional agenda -- or the president's, for that matter.
"This is the new fiscal reality. It means we have to make tough decisions," said John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee. "We can't help everybody."
HUD's budget has been rising steadily in recent years; it will approach $30 billion when the deal is completed this week. But the number of households getting help has been stagnant at 4.8 million after years of steady increases. HUD no longer builds new housing for families, and until last year the GOP Congress had cut off the flow of new vouchers.
The nationwide effort to replace blighted high-rise projects with smaller and more manageable developments has also reduced the stock of federally assisted housing. And in recent years, developers have converted more than 100,000 subsidized apartments to market-rate housing after their 20-year government contracts expired; the average rent increase has been 50 percent.
St. Louis reflects these public sector trends. Already, 1,000 of its public housing units have been demolished and more than 1,000 others have been declared uninhabitable, leaving only about 3,500 occupied. Meanwhile, in the private market, where about 100,000 apartments have lead paint problems, gentrification is driving the demolition of even more low-income apartments, giving way to yuppie subdivisions with hipster names like Bohemian Hill, offering single-family homes for sale for $132,000 to $180,000.
That is way out of range for a low-income working mother like Michelle Thompson, 39, a janitor who earns $265 a week, and pays about half that for a rotting two-bedroom with exposed electrical wiring and a nasty sewage odor. Roaches march up and down her kitchen door frame like mutant sentinels. Her ceiling is caving in from water damage. Her younger daughter wants to be a lawyer someday, but she cannot study at home because her asthma flares up. Her older daughter's son, like one in four St. Louis children, has tested positive for lead poisoning; paint literally pours off the back porch when it rains.
"I've rented from every slumlord in this city," Thompson said. "My kids don't complain, but I know they're thinking: Mom, we can do better than this. But where? There's nowhere to go."
Thompson, of course, will be eligible to apply for the new vouchers. But there are already 3,400 families ahead of her on the waiting list. And a voucher is no guarantee of an apartment; last year, a stunning 40 percent of the families awarded vouchers in St. Louis had to return them after four months because they could not find a landlord who would take them. The rental market is just too tight, and many landlords who can afford to be choosy are leery of dealing with either government bureaucrats or government beneficiaries. And the apartments that do come available are often unlivable; Thompson was offered a subsidized unit once, but there were drug dealers doing business in the courtyard, so she said no.
"It's a terrible situation," said Laura Barrett, director of Housing Comes First, a St. Louis advocacy group. "We're losing affordable housing everywhere we look. The economy is great, the budget is in surplus, and we're fighting just to protect what we've got."
In recent years, Congress has essentially decided that protecting people who have federal aid is more important than adding new families to the system. That's a relief for the 247 elderly residents of Park Place, a brick HUD-subsidized complex in a booming neighborhood. In January, the subsidy contracts will expire, so instead of paying just 30 percent of their income, the residents could be charged market rents. Nationwide, more than 1 million residents could encounter a similar plight over the next decade, but Congress and the administration have agreed to give them "enhanced" vouchers that will help them stay put.
"We're tired. We don't want to move anymore," said Henrietta Woods, 69, a retired dietary aide who runs the tenant association. "The politicians better take care of us. We vote."
But most low-income families in inner-city St. Louis don't vote. And in a time of budget austerity, congressional aides say there isn't the political will to address their problems. "Cuomo can shriek all he wants," said one GOP housing aide. "The fact is, this crisis is bigger than we can solve, and it's bigger than he can solve, too."
Take lead paint. In St. Louis, which has the fourth-oldest housing stock in the nation, the childhood lead poisoning rates are about six times the national average. This year, now that Republicans have backed off their proposed cuts, the city's lead poisoning prevention program should be able to decontaminate about 500 low-income apartments. At that rate, it will finish deleading St. Louis in about 200 years.
"It's such a massive problem, people just throw up their hands and say forget it," said Don Weiss, the director of the program. "All I can say is, every day, I see another kid with toxic levels of lead poisoning. I wish we could help more of them."