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Housing legislation hampers advocacy

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By Ret Boney

A diverse group that includes some of the most prominent U.S. nonprofits is fighting to have restrictive language removed from legislation creating an affordable housing fund.

The Housing Finance Reform Act of 2005, H.R. 1461, creates the fund by requiring Fannie Mae and Fannie Mac to contribute 5 percent of their after-tax income to it.

The fund would be used for building and rehabilitating housing for low-income populations.

According to language from the bill that was leaked in mid-October, nonprofits engaging in certain advocacy or lobbying activities in the 12 months before applying would be denied money from the fund, says the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which has an early draft of the language.

Restricted activities include non-partisan voter registration efforts, the coalition says.

The restriction would be enforced even if the nonprofit uses funds from private sources for its advocacy or lobbying efforts.

It also would disqualify any nonprofit that has an “affiliation” with another nonprofit that engaged in such activities over the past year, even if the group applying has not done so itself.

The language applies only to nonprofits groups, exempting for-profit organizations from the restriction.

More than 60 nonprofit groups across the U.S. have signed a letter opposing the language, which has come to be called the “nonprofit gag rule,” including the Children’s Defense Fund, the Episcopal Church, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, OMB Watch, the National Council on Aging and the NAACP.

The Child Welfare League of America, a nonprofit working on behalf of disadvantaged children, says the restriction would hamper the group’s efforts to help children become participating citizens.

“Unfortunately, a compromise made in order to bring H.R. 1461 to a floor vote would prohibit CWLA members who use money from the Fund from registering young people to vote when they turn 18,” Shay Bilchik, president and CEO of the group, says in a statement.

“This is in direct conflict with our commitment to educate young people aging out of the foster care system about their rights and responsibilities as successful adults,” Bilchik says.

The Rev. Willie Gable, executive vice chairman of the National Baptist Convention, USA, calls the amendment the “non-voting rights amendment of 2005.”

“[These provisions] are intended for no other purpose than to reduce access to voting by low-income people,” says the letter signed by nonprofits opposing the language.  “People of color are over-represented in the low-income population, making this a civil rights issue.”

The N.C. Center for Nonprofits, a Raleigh-based network of nonprofit groups, issued a statement urging its members to contact their representatives.

“This could have a chilling effect on all nonprofits’ voices,” the statement says.  “It would set a precedent that could make nonprofits that receive federal funds fear losing those funds if they don’t curb their own advocacy and nonpartisan voting activities.”

The House is expected to vote on the bill during the week of Oct. 24.

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