Republican Public-Housing Law Enacted: Is It That Bad?

After four years of trying, Congressional Republicans have finally passed a law overhauling the nation’s public-housing system.

Public-housing activists say that they were able to kill or dilute many of the worst proposals contained in the bill, the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, before it was passed. “It’s a lot better than it could have been, but we’re taking a cautious tone,” says Lisa Ranghelli of the Center for Community Change in Washington, DC.

David Bryson of the National Housing Law Project in Oakland is more skeptical, saying that the law could undermine key tenant protections: “It’s not as bad as it was when it was introduced, but that doesn’t lead me to the conclusion that it’s not that bad.”

The House passed the bill, sponsored by Long Island Republican Rep. Rick Lazio, on Oct. 6. The Senate approved it by a 96-1 vote two days later, and President Clinton is expected to sign it. Previous Lazio legislation had made it through both chambers, but died in conference after House and Senate Republicans couldn’t agree on specific provisions.

Unlike the previous versions, the new law does not completely repeal the 1937 Housing Act, or the 1969 Brooke Amendment, which limits rents to 30 percent of the tenants’ income. (Residents can now decide whether to pay 30 percent of their income or a flat rate.) It requires tenants to do eight hours of community service each month or face eviction—a provision tenants and advocates vehemently protested-but there are very broad exemptions, including people who are working, elderly, disabled, or families receiving public assistance. The bill does not include limits on how long people can stay in public housing.

Another major issue was how many apartments would be given to the extremely poor—people with incomes less than 30% of the area median, or about $14,000 a year for a family of four in New York—and how many to better-off working-class tenants. Under current federal regulations, suspended by Congress in 1995, about three-fourths of vacant apartments were reserved for the poorest tenants. The new law cuts that requirement to 40% of available public-housing or project-based Section 8 units, leaving it at 75% for available Section 8 vouchers. Local authorities have some flexibility to switch tenants between those options.

Supporters of lowering the low-income quota say that projects such as New York’s, which are home to a significant number of working families, function better than projects like Chicago’s mammoth Robert Taylor Homes, where there are some buildings in which almost no one has a job. Opponents say that taxpayer-subsidized housing should go first to the people with the least resources, and that mismanagement and poor location are the main causes of problems in public housing.

While the bill’s authorization for the Department of Housing and Urban Development is slightly less than the $25 billion the Clinton Administration requested, it still adds more than $3 billion to HUD’s budget. The Center for Community Change called it “the best HUD spending bill in five years,” as it restores massive cuts made after the Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 elections. It adds almost a billion dollars in Section 8 funding-enough for 50,000 more vouchers, plus administrative changes that will provide another 30,000 to 40,000 vouchers. While it cuts operating funds for public housing slightly, it increases capital funds by $500 million, to $3 billion. It also raises funding for homeless assistance by 17%, a $152 million increase.

Previous Lazio-bill proposals to allow massive deregulation of local authorities, including New York, have been scaled down somewhat. The new law allows the federal government to select up to 100 jurisdictions—not including New York — over the next five years to design their own public-housing programs. These cities and counties will still be required to follow federal regulations on tenant eligibility and rent levels, and must continue to serve more or less the same number of tenants.

A large potential problem with the bill, says Ranghelli, is that it could be used to encourage demolition of housing projects, with no guarantees that the tenants would get comparable housing. “There’ll be much less assurance that somebody will be moved into a place they can afford,” says David Bryson. One provision, spearheaded by New York Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, significantly weakens a 1970 urban-renewal law protect- ing people displaced by federally funded projects.

The law also replaces permanent leases with one-year leases. “Congress can start tacking on all sorts of reasons why leases can’t be renewed,” says Ranghelli. Bryson worries that in some of the areas selected for home rule, local authorities could switch to month-to-month tenancies and HUD could waive regulations requiring a cause for eviction, allowing tenants to be thrown out on 30 days’ notice.

While some activists are breathing easier at having turned back some of the Republicans’ more nefarious proposals, many have not seen the full law yet. The Center for Community Change statement warns that the law gives local authorities “the potential for many more demolitions and conversions of hard public-housing units to vouchers. As the expression goes, the devil is in the details.”