Federal cuts expected to hit rent vouchers -- Gazette.Net


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Federal budget subsidy cuts threaten to put families on the streets if local housing authorities cannot absorb looming shortfalls, according to a panel Friday morning at the Affordable Housing Conference in Rockville.

Douglas Rice, senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the federal budget cuts known as sequestration will shave $2 billion from Department of Housing and Urban Development programs in 2013.

Of that cut, about $1 billion will come from vouchers that provide low-income families with assistance to pay rent, he said.

“The sequester itself has forced continued difficulties,” said Stacy Spann, executive director of the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission. “These issues have been bubbling up for some time, and so now, we’re at a real crossroads.”

Rice said budget cuts to HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher program could eliminate vouchers for about 2,000 of the 32,000 families currently served in the Washington, D.C., region.

That could mean putting people on the street, said Paula Sampson, director of Fairfax County Department of Housing and Community Development and Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

“Termination is most troubling,” she said. About 200 voucher recipients in Fairfax are at risk of losing their assistance, she said, adding that Fairfax is exploring options to avoid families losing vouchers.

Turnover of existing vouchers to new families is the only way housing authorities get new vouchers and in Fairfax, the turnover rate is only about 15 vouchers a month, she said.

In Prince George’s County, turnover is about one voucher a month, said Eric Brown, director of Prince George’s County Housing and Community Development.

“Be upset,” Adrianne Todman, executive director of the District of Columbia Housing Authority told those attending the conference. “Because what will happen if we can’t house families, the families don’t disappear, they don’t vanish. ... They’re on the streets. They’re in your neighborhoods. They’re next to your 7-Elevens and your Starbucks.”

Merceda Gooding, 45, of Gaithersburg, a voucher recipient since 2006, said she was informed in writing that she could soon be losing some of the subsidy that helps her afford her $1,160 monthly rent.

Recently laid off, Gooding characterized the letter she received as cold and calculating, feeling as if it was drafted without any sympathy for the recipients.

That letter has Gooding sweating as she considers what personal expenses, like her phone or cable, she must cut to make ends meet, or to where she might be forced to move.

“I’m just so upset,” she said. “I’m trying to get myself out of this situation and this comes in the mail. You ain’t even giving me any consideration.”

Housing prices in Montgomery have made it difficult to rent without a voucher, Gooding said.

Even with two bachelor’s degrees and her master’s underway, Gooding has struggled to find steady employment at fair pay in Montgomery County.

“I can’t even find a job that pays a living wage so I can get off the program,” she said. “It’s just sad. I’m looked at as a second-class citizen. I’m not looked at as a human being.”

Spann said Montgomery County is authorized to provide about 6,500 Housing Choice Vouchers to families. But the high cost of housing has allowed his organization to provide only about 5,800 vouchers.

In Montgomery County, the average recipient of a housing voucher makes about $16,000 a year, Spann said. That equates to about $1,333 a month.

The average rental rate for an apartment in Montgomery County was $1,442 a month in 2011, according to the latest county figures.

Housing that costs 30 percent or less of household income is considered affordable.

As they work to absorb the budget cuts, housing authorities have been forced to rethink their business models, Brown said.

Spann said the Housing Opportunities Commission has been forced to completely redo its business model.

Aiming to mitigate the impact of the cuts on the agency’s clients, Spann said previously, the affordable housing agency also examined its finances and will eliminate about 18 jobs as a direct result of the budget cuts.

“It’s sobering to say the least,” he said Friday, saying the real impact of the budget cuts to the voucher program alone in Montgomery is about $5 million to $6 million.

To make voucher dollars go further, the commission has changed some standards tied to the vouchers, such as how many bedrooms are allotted and has reduced the voucher’s value to only be 95 percent of the fair-market value of a unit, according to a letter provided to residents. Despite program changes, Montgomery still could eliminate some vouchers because of budget cuts but how many, if any, is almost impossible to project now, Spann said.

kalexander@gazette.net