ideastream Focus on Housing: HUD Cuts Could Affect Public Housing Residents

About 3 million people live in public housing - just under 16,000 of them in Cuyahoga County. Rent in public housing is limited by law to 30% of income. A majority of the difference comes from federal sources. Last fiscal year, local groups received about $3.5 billion, 100% of what they requested from the federal government. The Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority received $52.8 million. But this year, they could receive up to a third less than that. Local officials found out about major funding cutbacks in early January. Democratic Congresswoman Marci Kaptur of Toledo sits on the subcommittee that oversees HUD.

Marci Kaptur: We've been informed that HUD will not seek supplemental funding to alleviate this shortfall, which they're at fault for producing. I don't know what happened, they were supposed to have this money, they don't but there is no reason our local communities should have to suffer for their mistakes.

Because the cuts came with no advance warning, public housing officials say the impact on residents will be dramatic and immediate. Programs that could be affected include public housing maintenance, security, job readiness classes, and after school programs like this one in Cleveland.

On a recent cold, snowy weekday afternoon, kids from 3 surrounding public housing projects trickle in to a local recreation center to play table tennis and air hockey. Even with full funding, a boxing program at the center has ceased, tutoring programs are limited, and there isn't enough staff to supervise all the kids. 11-year-old Ronnie Hern makes a visit to an upstairs weight room, and encounters a semi-conscious teenager slumped on a piece of equipment, drooling on himself. Back downstairs, he tells program director Dwayne Browder what he saw.

Ronnie Hern: Someone' s upstairs sleeping...

Dwayne Browder: Is he asleep on the weight bench?

Ronnie Hern: No...

Browder thinks the man could be one of the homeless people who sometimes sneak into the center. He sends a colleague to go check on him. Browder is a commissioner on the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority Board, or CMHA.

Dwayne Browder: Not everyone at CMHA cares for tenants. If they did, no tenants would be in such bad shape. They're fearful of punishment if they speak too loud.

CMHA officials refused to be interviewed for this story. The agency has been plagued with internal conflict in the past few years. Former CMHA leader Claire Freeman was sentenced in April to 18 months in prison for taking more than $100,000 of agency money. Freeman was one of the highest-paid housing directors in the country. If operating budgets decrease, Browder says public housing's problems will only get worse. A lifelong public housing resident, Browder is organizing a letter-writing campaign and bus trips to Washington to urge President Bush to restore the funds.

Dwayne Browder: He's well aware of what the cuts could do. He wants to finance a war. That's his choice of what he wants to do. What the tenants choice has got to be is to say, "we got war right here, now."

Initially, HUD told local authorities to expect subsidy cuts of up to 30%. But HUD Assistant Secretary Michael Liu now expects the decrease to be closer to 10%. Liu says the agency is out $250 million because of faulty accounting practices dating back to the Clinton Administration, that allowed HUD officials to fix prior shortfalls with future funding.

Michael Liu: This was being done without the clear explanation and knowledge by congress and those in the office and management and budget, and when we discovered this we had to fix it. This is inappropriate.

Congress will ultimately decide HUD's budget. But in the meantime, public housing officials must plan for the 10% cuts, enough, they say, to disrupt basic services to the poor. In Cleveland, Janet Babin, 90.3.

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