The Bush administration's proposal to eliminate many of the federal rules requiring public housing authorities to serve extremely low-income people has generated widespread concern among housing advocates who say the change could prove ruinous for the nation's poorest families who have nowhere else to turn for affordable housing.
The proposal, pending in Congress since earlier this spring, would allow local housing authorities to charge higher rents, provide lower subsidies and limit the amount of time tenants can remain in federally subsidized housing to as little as five years. Taken together, the changes would amount to one of the most dramatic policy shifts in the 68-year history of public housing.
Bush administration officials say the proposal suits the president's vision of promoting self-sufficiency and encouraging home ownership. But advocates and local housing officials worry that the changes will result in a reduction in an already inadequate supply of housing affordable to people mired in deep poverty.
"The changes would harm households with the most severe affordable-housing needs," said Douglas Rice, director of housing and community development for Catholic Charities USA. "The shortage of affordable housing is one of the primary causes of homelessness, and extremely low-income households are most at risk of becoming homeless."
The proposal expands on previous administration efforts, largely thwarted by Congress, aimed at reducing long-term dependency on federal housing subsidies. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, testifying before a House committee last month, said the plan would encourage tenants to move into market-rate rentals or to buy homes, with federal help for down payments and closing costs.
"The federal government has allowed families who declare no income to live rent-free and to receive a check to pay for utilities," Jackson said. "There is little incentive for families to seek housing outside of the voucher program; in fact, there is a disincentive to make positive life decisions."
Jackson, who formerly headed housing authorities in the District, St. Louis and Dallas, said that the new rules would reward, with a greater share of federal housing aid, families striving to improve their lives. Current guidelines, he said, "have shut the door on voucher assistance on low-income individuals who work hard to raise their income."
The proposed rules are part of what Jackson calls an effort to rein in the spiraling cost of federal housing subsidies while transforming public housing from "a handout" for the deeply impoverished to "a hand up" for the working poor. Jackson said the average housing assistance payment had gone from $411 per household per month in 2000 to $557 in 2004.
Tenant advocates and local housing officials say the nation's poorest families would be forced to compete for a diminishing supply of housing subsidies. And even when they secure federal housing help, they say, the Bush administration's refusal to fund the programs at higher levels means that local housing authorities would be pressured to require poor tenants to pay a larger share of their income in rent. Advocates say many of the 3 million families now in public housing or receiving federal housing vouchers that cover much of their rent in private housing do not earn enough to pay more.
"Public housing is a critical part of a pretty tattered safety net," said Barbara Sard, a housing expert with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "The rule changes would have the effect of shifting money away from lower-income to higher-income folks."
Michael P. Kelly, executive director of the D.C. Housing Authority, said that he likes the idea of being allowed more latitude in how he spends federal housing aid. What worries him is the federal government's new policy to limit the amount of money tied to each housing voucher, which would force the agency to serve fewer people, even as 40,000 D.C. residents remain on a waiting list for housing subsidies. "The bottom line of that change would be less money and less support for families," he said.
The difficulty of moving tenants off federal housing subsidies is evident here in Philadelphia. Operating under a federal pilot project since 2001, the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) has retooled its policies with the aim of easing people off of lifelong public housing dependency and into home ownership or market-rate rentals. The authority offers residents what it calls "self-sufficiency" training on such matters as personal finance and property care. It has also imposed a seven-year limit on public housing residency, although its executives freely acknowledge that the limit is likely to be extended.
Still, the housing authority has been able to move just 151 families off the subsidy rolls and into homes of their own in the program's first four years. Officials hope to accelerate that shift, in part, by encouraging tenants to get jobs in places such as retail outlets that would pay enough to make them afford a mortgage with down payment and other help from the PHA.
But perhaps the toughest obstacle officials here confront in getting people off subsidized housing is the stubborn pervasiveness of deep poverty. Nearly half of the families receiving public housing aid in Philadelphia have incomes under $8,000 a year; and only a fifth reported annual incomes above $20,000, according to PHA statistics.
Maxine Singletary moved into South Philadelphia's Tasker Homes when she was 13 months old and, except for a brief period, she never left. That is where she grew up, raised five children, retired and plans to spend the rest of her life.
"I like South Philly," said Singletary, 65, as she sat in her spacious dining room in the newly rebuilt development, rechristened Greater Grays Ferry Estates. "This is where I want to be."
That was fortunate, because with the federal government requiring her to use less than a third of her meager income to pay rent, public housing was one of the few places Singletary could afford, as she bounced from work as a hotel maid to welfare and, finally, to disability.
Even if the PHA can move some of its 80,000 tenants off its rolls, thousands of others are waiting in line to take their place. Later this year, when the PHA's waiting list for housing subsidy vouchers is likely to reopen after being closed for four years, the agency projects a flood of about 20,000 new applicants.
"Public housing has been a lifetime thing, and sometimes a multi-generational for many of our families," said Executive Director Carl R. Greene said. "We're working to change that paradigm."
The Bush administration's public housing proposal comes after a series of changes that dramatically improved crumbling public housing developments such as Tasker since their crack-induced nadir of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then, drugs and wanton violence drove the last of the working families out of public housing in many cities and made living conditions all but unbearable for those left behind.
Since 1992, programs such as the federal government's HOPE VI initiative, which is slated for elimination in the Bush budget, have provided billions of dollars to demolish some of the nation's most distressed developments and to rebuild them as mixed-income communities. In the District, the program has helped remake half a dozen public housing developments, and other improvements are on the drawing board.
Many of the newly rebuilt developments combine low-income rentals and homes for sale. The new communities are clean and safe -- a far cry from the recent past. "We used to have to duck and dodge bullets around here," said Belinda Stanley as she sat in the living room of her family's new, four-bedroom home at Greater Grays Ferry Estates. "You knew to hit the floor when you heard the shots."
Now, she said, the development has the feel of a community. School kids are out in the afternoons shooting baskets, riding their bikes or playing double Dutch. Residents can now relax on front porches, and some have erected little fences around their postage-stamp lawns or adorned them with plastic tulips. "If somebody isn't doing right, the neighbors don't mind reporting you," Stanley said. "Before, they were leery to do that. It was too wild."
The community has become so desirable that Greene says it is lifting property values in adjoining neighborhoods. Working- and middle-class people are beginning to buy homes where only the poor lived just a few years ago. That is all good, Greene said, except for those who remain desperately poor -- as are most of his tenants.
"We like a lot of the president's proposals, because they are similar to what we're already doing," Greene said. "The biggest shortcoming I see with them is the funding limits."