Housing action urged

Advocates for homeless must engage in housing policy debate, expert says.

By Ret Boney

RALEIGH, N.C. — With pressure on federal housing dollars increasing, advocates for the homeless must work to save critical housing programs, a federal housing expert told attendees of the North Carolina’s Conference on Homelessness.

Barbara Sard, director of housing policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., gave the keynote address at the eighth annual event Nov. 30 sponsored by the N.C. Interagency Council for Coordinating Homeless Programs.

“The real story is about the priorities the federal budget represents and how the budget drives policy,” she told the audience of people who work on behalf of the homeless or on issues affecting them.  “All of you are needed now in a way that is important over the next many years.”

The tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 led in part to the current $400 billion federal deficit, Sard said, and have brought federal revenues to their lowest percentage of the economy since the 1950s, and when the cuts are rolled out fully, their annual cost will be eight times the entire budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“There is a huge amount of pressure to reduce spending across a large number of programs,” she said.  “There will be major pressure, for the first time, on entitlement programs like Medicare and food stamps.”

Programs for the coming year have already been cut, she said, noting that the HUD budget was cut by 2.7 percent and public housing programs for the elderly and disabled were cut by more than 4 percent, numbers that do not factor in inflation.

Regardless of the bleak outlook, Sard said, it is possible to make a difference.

She said the Bush administration’s previous efforts to cut the largest housing program for the poor, which provides vouchers poor people use to pay apartment rent, were rejected by Congress, in part because people were able to show how much the program means and the role it plays.

Homeless advocates must add their voices to that housing policy discussion, she said, in order to further protect vouchers and other critical housing programs.

At the federal level, she said, advocates must “put a face on homelessness” to illustrate why the funding is necessary, why vouchers should be extended to those on waiting lists, and why housing programs should be geared to the lowest-income populations.

“You can make the connections between success in fighting homelessness and maintaining strong local affordable housing programs,” Sard said.

At the state and local levels, she said, advocates should work to increase dollars going into affordable housing, noting that states and local governments will have to fill the gap created by federal cutbacks.

Homeless advocates should also work with local groups that distribute federal and local dollars, helping them navigate the challenges they will face as they try to do their jobs with fewer dollars.

“In 1949, our country set the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family,” Sard said, referring to the Housing Act of that year. “I think of that as one of the strongest American values our country aspires to.”

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