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The Sequester and the Homeless

NY Times, Mar. 22, 2014

By the Editorial Board

The across-the-board cuts to federal programs that took effect last spring receded from the headlines after Republicans were shamed into allowing the government to pay its bills. But the cuts, known as the sequester, continue to take a toll on crucial housing programs that are intended to shield the elderly, the disabled and impoverished families with children from homelessness.

These cuts arrived in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, at a time when only one in four families who would qualify for federal rental assistance actually get it.

The sequester seriously damaged the Section 8 housing program, which subsidizes rents for more than two million of the nation’s poorest families. Local housing authorities reacted to the across-the-board cuts by tightening the screws on this voucher program. They ceased to issue new vouchers that would ordinarily have gone to homeless or needy families and even recalled vouchers that had been issued but had not yet been committed to landlords.

An analysis released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed that, as of December, there were 70,000 fewer low-income families using vouchers to rent private housing than there were a year earlier. The number of families using vouchers fell precipitously in states like Alaska (by 11.69 percent), Kansas (10.05 percent) and Montana (9.02 percent).

The drop in the number of vouchers in circulation works against the program; Congress generally funds the program based on the number of vouchers in service the previous year.

The December budget deal that ended sequestration will allow housing agencies to replace less than half of the 70,000 vouchers lost in 2013. Given the pressing need, it should come up with the money to restore the rest.

The sequester also hurt the long-neglected public developments that house about 1.1 million of the country’s most vulnerable families. These developments had been staggering along under ever-shrinking operating budgets — and a $26 billion backlog in repairs — even before the sequester.

When further cuts came along, three quarters of state and local housing agencies reacted by cutting the number of families served, letting waiting lists grow and leaving damaged apartments vacant rather than repairing them.

As if all that wasn’t enough, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, federal housing officials have estimated that sequestration cuts to homeless assistance grants “led states and localities to remove 60,000 formerly homeless persons from housing and emergency shelter programs.”

All this comes at a time when record numbers of families have been caught in the squeeze between rising rents and falling wages — and are at greater risk of homelessness. In other words, this is the worst possible time for Congress to let affordable housing programs go begging.

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