Growing the Homeless

THE HEADLINES IN the budget gridlock story have revolved around the deficit, Medicare, and Social Security. But funding for public housing is on the Congressional chopping block, and thousands of low-income residents in this area will be directly affected.

The bill passed by Congress and vetoed by President Clinton mandated a $100 million cut in HUD's operating subsidies, and cuts of $385 million for housing modernization and $220 million in aid for distressed developments. "At first the veto seems like good news. But when you consider that the President's priorities are for things like his national service program and the environment, cuts for housing may actually be greater once they finish negotiating," says Bill Paterson, public information coordinator for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.

Congress means to recoup those cuts partially through rent increases for public housing residents, including the poorest of the poor. Just last week, the U.S. Senate passed a bill allowing housing authorities to impose a minimum rent of $25 per month on the lowest-income residents, people currently exempted from paying anything. "The local housing authorities I talk to say that with the federal cutbacks, they can't make ends meet without adjusting rates upwards," says State Rep. Andy Dawkins (DFL-St. Paul). "In Minnesota, if it comes down to wholesale abandonment of public housing or higher rents, I'd have to go with the latter. As people start to feel the squeeze, I hope they understand what it means to have a Republican Congress."

But Paterson calls across-the-board rent increases "ridiculous." He notes that under the current HUD guidelines, any housing authority rent increase results in a corresponding decrease in monies from HUD. "I don't know if that would change," he adds, "because we aren't getting any information from Washington. It's four months into our fiscal year and they still haven't decided the appropriations."

More than three-quarters of the public housing residents in Minneapolis live in 42 high-rise buildings throughout the city. Their average annual income is $6,523. According to the latest figures available (from fall 1995), 481 people (fewer than 10 percent) pay no rent. At the minimum of $25 per month, they could add more than $125,000 to the local housing authority's coffers. Paterson concedes, "that would mean a lot to us," but adds that "these are the wrong people to try and get it from."

The low-income housing squeeze is likely to get worse before it gets better. "We had 8,000 new applicants in 1994 and '95," says Paterson. "Our Section 8 waiting list hasn't been open for three years. The demand is overwhelming." A public meeting on federal housing legislation with staff members from the offices of U.S. Senators Wellstone and Grams and U.S. Representative Sabo will be held at 9:30 on Thursday morning at 1815 Central Ave. N.E. in Minneapolis.

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