Where sequestration hits home

From The Philadelphia Inquirer

By Steven A. Fischer, Dale P. Gravett, Lawrence E. Hartley, and Joel A. Johnson

Every day, our housing authorities meet desperate citizens who need help finding a stable place to live. Unfortunately, in most cases, the best we can do is add them to our years-long waiting lists. After years of “do more with less” mandates, sequestration has brought housing authorities in the region and across Pennsylvania and the nation to a breaking point.

Our central mission is to help vulnerable people find safe, affordable, and accessible homes. Our four housing authorities combined serve more than 29,000 people, with an additional 30,000 on our waiting lists. They are fellow Pennsylvanians who — often because of circumstances beyond their control — have nowhere else to turn. They are seniors, veterans, disabled people, and families with children. Their average annual household income is $14,000 — too little to afford a decent place to live.

To help them, housing authorities operate two main programs. The Housing Choice Voucher Program provides federal subsidies to the private rental marketplace in support of low-income households. Authorities also own and manage housing units rented at a discount to residents.

In most instances, these efforts are so successful that they go essentially unnoticed. But imagine what the suburbs might look like if 29,000 people could not count on our help. These programs work like a vaccine to prevent homelessness, emergency room visits, and nursing-home placement. They spur investment, through more than 4,000 property owners, in the private rental market.

These initiatives are funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). So when HUD’s budget was slashed due to sequestration, we were forced to scale back our efforts — regardless of their cost-effectiveness. Additionally, we are delaying or canceling maintenance and construction projects — valuable drivers of local economic activity.

Local agencies have sought to absorb budget cuts without hurting our clients. The Delaware County Housing Authority has reduced its staff by more than 15 percent over the last five years, Chester County by more than 20 percent over three years, and Montgomery County by more than 35 percent over six years. The city of Chester’s agency has 50 percent fewer staffers than it did eight years ago.
Our fear is that continued cuts will also cause significant harm to the quality of life in our communities. Maintenance and repairs and, ultimately, the well-being of the people we serve will suffer without appropriate funding or staff. They will be forced to depend on costlier assistance — such as nursing homes, emergency rooms, or shelters — to make ends meet.

In an analysis of HUD cuts that was released last year, the national consulting firm Econsult determined that “every dollar saved by HUD through capital grant cuts to public housing authorities would result in about $0.46 of negative impacts.”

In other words, these spending cuts save just half as much as intended. That figure will further erode as our residents turn to more expensive services. Vulnerable citizens will encounter even more challenges, and taxpayers will foot an even higher bill.

Robust housing authority programs can help prevent this. Over the last several months, we have urged our members of Congress to prioritize investing in these proven, cost-effective services by fully funding HUD. At the same time, we recognize that simply asking for full funding is myopic.

Part of the solution is to ease the burden; some federal regulations constrain our operations and prevent us from adopting privatesector business models and adapting our procedures to better cope with funding reductions. Addressing this would be an important — and pragmatic — step in the right direction.

We ask our congressional delegation to alleviate the burden the sequester is forcing onto the backs of thousands of low-income Pennsylvanians — and urge their colleagues across the country to do the same. Sequestration may not be directly affecting most Americans, but we see its harmful impact on our most vulnerable neighbors every day.

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