We hear the words "family values" a lot from politicians, particularly during election season. Conservatives often use this term to define a nuclear family consisting of a mother, father and kids, living in a home suitable for raising children. The truth is that a growing number of working families, including many that fit this model, need help from the government to pay for decent, affordable housing. But the Bush administration is not holding up its end of the bargain to promote its definition of "family values," and low-income families are paying the price.
A change recently made by the administration -- if not addressed -- will force New York City to face a shortfall of at least $55.5 million in federal housing subsidies this year. But beyond the numbers, there is a human face to the administration's catastrophic decision -- the low-income families who need and depend on Section 8 Housing vouchers to help them pay for their homes. This program is supposed to help low-income families find and pay for housing. The family pays no more than 30 percent of its income for rent, and the government makes up the difference between that amount and what the landlord charges.
In April, the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a notice that it would alter the Section 8 Housing voucher funding formula by basing it on August 2003 housing costs instead of relying on the actual current costs of housing. Failing to fund the vouchers to keep up with current costs is disastrous for cities like New York, where housing and utility prices have increased and tenant incomes have not kept up with inflation.
Unless the administration's decision is reversed, it will create a dramatic funding shortfall that will force the New York City Housing Authority to either increase the percentage of their incomes that families must spend on rent or to reduce the number of families assisted by Section 8 vouchers. Either choice could force some families out of their homes. Since the government already does not provide vouchers to all the families that need them, the administration's change will only make an already difficult situation worse.
This change in policy is being implemented despite the success of the Section 8 Housing voucher program, which was created to ensure that a continuous supply of affordable housing would be available to low-income families. Only 15 percent of people receiving Section 8 vouchers live in high poverty areas, as compared to approximately 54 percent of public housing residents. Indeed, Section 8 vouchers have effectively addressed one of the most serious shortcomings of traditional, project-based housing -- the concentration of low-income housing in poor neighborhoods.
Despite the fact that the Section 8 Housing voucher program has a proven track record of helping low-income families, federal funding of the vouchers has been in sharp decline. In fiscal year 2001, 79,000 new vouchers were funded. In fiscal year 2002, the number dropped to 18,000, and Fiscal Year 2003 no new vouchers at all were funded.
New York City voucher recipients have been the primary victims of this rampant disregard of the voucher program. When the Bush administration changed the Section 8 voucher funding formula, more than 130,000 families were on the city housing authority's Section 8 waiting list -- an eight-year wait. Of these families, more than 24,000 are 62 years of age or older.
Tired of seeing families who rely on these vouchers suffer, I successfully added $150 million last year to the Section 8 program for fiscal year 2004, which translates into approximately 22,000 new vouchers based on current costs. My legislation to increase the number of housing vouchers was approved by a majority of Congress, and it seemed that efforts to derail the program were temporarily defeated. Yet the Bush administration forged ahead with its decision to change the funding formula.
To urge the administration to reverse its harmful change in Section 8 funding, I wrote to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson. In my letter, I reminded him that it is HUD's responsibility to honor the commitment made to the people who receive Section 8 vouchers and who rely on them in order to remain in their homes. It is imperative that we preserve the stability of families in the Section 8 program and safeguard the integrity of the governmental promise made to them.
The Bush administration continues to implement policies that hurt working families. By failing to fund fully the Section 8 housing voucher program, low-income families may be forced out of their homes. It is time for the president and the Republicans in Congress to realize that family values go well beyond Republican ideals of church and marriage, and that creating policies that harm low-income families is mean-spirited. Low-income housing options are essential for families that want and deserve to provide a safe environment for their children to live and grow.
Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, is the U.S. representative from Eighth Congressional District in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
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