March 20, 2004
Section 8 under fire: Bush proposal would increase homelessness
A Register-Guard Editorial
The Bush administration insists that its proposal to cut $1 billion from the Section 8 housing-assistance program is a tough-love move aimed at getting more low-income families off federal subsidies and into a happy state of self-sufficiency.
That's the White House's public explanation, at least. In reality, the cut is part of the administration's long-term agenda to drastically reduce federal spending on programs that benefit low-income Americans. It's also a sure-fire way to increase homelessness.
Today, some 32,000 Oregon households rely on the Section 8 program, which allows low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities to receive vouchers to find rental housing in privately owned homes or apartment complexes. The amounts that renters pay for rent and utilities vary, but their portion generally does not exceed 30 percent of their incomes. In Lane County, slightly over 2,600 families currently receive vouchers, and there is a waiting list of more than 4,000 people.
The program, rooted in the War on Poverty of the late 1960s, has proven a remarkably effective tool in addressing a nationwide affordable housing shortage and preventing homelessness. That's especially true in communities such as Eugene, where housing costs rank among the highest in the nation despite a prolonged economic downturn.
Now the Bush administration is proposing to reduce the $14.2 billion currently allocated for rent subsidies to $13.2 billion next year. In exchange for less money, the Department of Housing and Urban Development would grant local housing agencies more freedom to set their own rules and rent subsidies.
It's a familiar budgetary song and dance. Since he assumed office in 2000, Bush routinely has sought to reduce funding for programs that benefit low-income Americans under the pretexts of weaning them from government assistance and empowering state and local governments.
The Oregon Center for Public Policy has analyzed the administration's proposal and projects that the number of vouchers statewide could drop by as many as 3,837 next year if Congress approves the Bush plan. If all of the state's local housing agencies opted intstead to increase the rents that they charge voucher recipients, average annual rents would increase by $626. By 2009, the estimates are 9,212 fewer vouchers statewide or annual rent increases averaging $1,595.
In the calculus of government spending, that equals increased homelessness, especially with housing agencies across the nation still reeling from the impacts of last year's freeze on Section 8 vouchers.
The administration argues that federal subsidies for housing shouldn't be a lifetime entitlement for low-income families. That may be true for many working poor, but a hefty percentage of Section 8 vouchers goes to seniors and the disabled - nearly 50 percent in Lane County. For most of these people, federally subsidized housing can't be viewed as the first rung on a ladder leading to economic independence.
There are many other reasons to reject the administration's proposal. Eliminating the bulk of the program's current rules and turning it into a massive block grant program would create a crazyquilt of conflicting regulations across the country. Housing authorities would be free to offer subsidies to families with higher incomes, and there would no longer be any guarantee that the most needy families would receive assistance.
The Bush administration is justified in arguing that the Section 8 program needs improvement. But starving and dismantling a program that has been a proven success for 30 years hardly qualifies as an improvement.