When Bob Alba moved into his two-bedroom Normal Heights apartment in April, his landlord made some changes to the place to help the 25-year-old San Diego State University student get around. Alba, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy when he was in first grade, has limited use of his hands and arms and relies on a motorized wheelchair, so his landlord added a ramp to bypass the small step at the apartment's entryway and removed the molding in the doorway of Alba's bathroom to allow his wheelchair to squeeze through. The apartment's main bedroom is big enough for Alba to move about without bumping into furniture, and the second bedroom accommodates his live-in caretaker.
Just weeks after he settled into his new place, Alba was informed that the federal aid he relies on to subsidize his rent could be cut. There's a chance that come April 2005, when he renews his lease, Alba will either have to come up with an additional $400 each month for rent-he gets $800 a month in disability-or he'll have to move to a one-bedroom apartment where his caretaker, Chance, will have to sleep on the sofa. Chance helps Alba with expenses, but since the state plans to cut what it pays in-home healthcare providers like her to $6.50 an hour for a maximum of six hours a day, she has financial problems of her own. As a community college student, she has state-mandated fee hikes to deal with, too.
And so it goes with budget cuts.
Over the past few weeks, folks like Alba who rely on the federal Section 8 housing program have received letters telling them that they'll soon either have to pay more in rent or, for thousands of others from New York to L.A., they'll lose their housing aid entirely. It's all a result of a massive restructuring of the Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Section 8 program, the 30-year-old rental assistance program that helps nearly 2 million of the nation's poorest citizens pay their rent.
A “war-time budget”-as HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson put it-combined with the Bush administration's push to turn Section 8 into a temporary assistance program for less needy folks has resulted in the president's proposal to slice $1.6 billion from the Section 8 program next year with subsequent annual cuts peaking at $4.6 billion in 2009, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Under the Section 8 program, participants are expected to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, and HUD issues vouchers to cover the rest. In San Diego, 12,000 renters participate in the Section 8 program, and on the county level, 10,400 households rely on Section 8 vouchers. There's currently a 30,000-person waiting list for the city's Section 8 program. Alba got on the county's waiting list when he was 18 and had to wait six years.
San Diego Housing Commission CEO Betsy Morris said cuts to the Section 8 program are unprecedented. “No one saw this coming,” she said. “We knew the [Bush] administration had proposed a different funding structure [for 2005].” But in the 2004 federal budget, which was approved in January, “there was the most miniscule wording... nobody understood the import of, and even if they understood its import, never before has HUD acted so quickly on a budget.”
In late April, HUD told municipal housing authorities that beginning this June, Section 8 funding would revert to what it was on Aug. 1, 2003, plus a small amount for inflation. In other words, the funding rollback ignores a year's worth of rising housing and utility costs. The change was retroactive to January, meaning housing authorities affected by the cuts owe HUD several months in back pay. Morris has a word for it: “draconian.”
“There was a huge uproar,” she said. “All these places were just hit in a way that nobody could see coming.”
The Housing Commission planned to dip into its reserves and use the proceeds from property sales to cover the shortfall, but at the last minute, HUD “found” $150 million to bail out some-but not all-housing authorities. For the remainder of 2004, though, the Housing Commission expects to receive between $5 million and $12 million less for Section 8 vouchers.
To make up for it, the Housing Commission changed the formula it uses to determine voucher size. Now, a family of four will get a voucher to cover the cost of a two-bedroom apartment-under the prior payment structure, that family could have gotten funding for a three-bedroom place.
In Alba's case, since Chance isn't in the Section 8 program, he'll receive only enough to cover a one-bedroom apartment. The Housing Commission estimates 4,500 of its Section 8 renters will be affected by this change.
The county of San Diego, expecting a shortfall of $6 million this fiscal year, cut voucher amounts for 4,200 households by 5 to 15 percent. County Section 8 program manager Mike Dececchi said it was the only thing the county could do on short notice. “When all this came out, you really had only one month; you had no time to make any plans.” Any future cuts to Section 8 on the federal level means the county will have to come up with additional ways to offset costs. “It doesn't look very positive right now,” said Dececchi, “ but these folks who have gotten on our program are folks that desperately need the assistance.”
A group of local activists and community members, many of them Section 8 recipients themselves, have been meeting to discuss ways to prevent-or reverse-these cuts. Rene Flores, a member of Save Section 8 San Diego-the local arm of a larger national movement-says the group plans to appeal to city and county officials to help offset cuts. Flores points to subsidies the city gives businesses and wonders why it can't do the same to keep some of its poorest residents housed.
“They're spending millions of dollars trying to remodel Belmont Park,” he said. “In a way they've kind of given the Section 8 subsidy to these developers. They give money to rich people who have their own businesses but they don't give money to poor people to have their own houses.”
Save Section 8 San Diego has been watching the Bay Area city of Alameda, where a coalition of activists and tenants calling themselves the Campaign for Renters Rights (CCR), managed to halt 120 evictions of Section 8 tenants and postpone 120 more. CCR's Jeremy Prickett said the pressure his group put on the Alameda City Council compelled the council to work with landlords to lower rents and drum up city money for Section 8.
“The [Alameda] City Council was very adamant that this is a federal issue and there's nothing we can do,” said Prickett, who moved to Alameda from San Diego two months ago. “We just can't accept that, because how do you tell a homeless child that it's a federal issue? Yes, it's a federal issue, but the devastation is a community devastation. If you're facing eviction in three weeks, being told to write a letter to [Congressmen] Pete Stark or Bob Filner, that's ridiculous. You're going to be out on the streets with your family in three weeks and you're going to write a letter to your senator? My advice to [San Diego activists] is they do whatever it takes.”
Bob Pinnegar, executive director of the San Diego County Apartment Association, said landlords here have considered lowering rents to help out Section 8 tenants. “If they've had somebody who's been a good resident and it's within reason, I think that you'll probably see that.” But, he added, given the direction the Bush administration is pushing the Section 8 program, the worst of the cuts are yet to come.
Though it's not as immediate as Prickett and other housing activists would like, legislation co-authored by Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and San Diego Congresswoman Susan Davis would, if passed, rescind cuts to the Section 8 program. Davis spokesperson Aaron Hunter said that so far the bill, HR 4263, has been blocked by Republican House members who support changes to Section 8.
“They're not likely to bring legislation to reverse what they supported,” he said. “It may be like this for awhile unless Democrats take the House back or enough pressure is put on current House leaders that they make changes.”
For Alba, there's a chance he could retain his current voucher by asking for a so-called “reasonable accommodation” because of his disability, though Morris said there are a lot of renters who rely on caregivers, making it difficult to accommodate everyone. Regardless, Alba doesn't plan to move. “It might just be tight; really, really tight,” he said.