Public-Housing “Reforms” Fail After Tenant Outcry

A Republican effort to “reform” the nation’s public-housing system by allowing massive rent increases and deregulating local housing authorities has failed, at least for this year.

Two bills — both strongly opposed by public-housing tenants and advocates — both died in late September when a House-Senate conference committee was unable to reconcile the differences between them before it adjourned. The impasse effectively ended any chance of the legislation getting through Congress this year.

“Advocates can take full credit for defeating this potentially devastating piece of legislation,” the Washington-based Center for Community Change declared in its Sept. 30 newsletter. “Thanks to the coordinated efforts of tenants and advocates around the country, draconian public-housing and tenant-based Section 8 reforms will not be enacted this year.”

The House and Senate passed separate versions of the legislation last spring. Conservatives and free-market advocates hailed it as a major reform for the nation’s public-housing system. But tenants and their advocates saw the measures as a potential disaster, sparking a nationwide campaign — lobbying, letter-writing, and demonstrations — to kill them or at least eliminate their most odious provisions.

The House bill, sponsored by Long Island Republican Rep. Rick Lazio, was much more radical than the Senate version. It would have repealed the Brooke Amendment — a 1969 law that limits public-housing rents to no more than 30 percent of the tenant’s income — for all but the most destitute tenants; reduced eviction protections; and set the federal occupancy standard at two persons per bedroom. The Lazio bill would have also repealed the U.S. Housing Act, the 1937 law that established the nation’s federally funded public-housing system, and replaced it with block grants to the states.

Another provision — strongly supported by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani — would have established “demonstration projects” that would have allowed selected local housing authorities to charge market-rate rents, set time limits and community-service requirements for tenants, and sell or demolish buildings, giving tenants vouchers for private housing instead.

The Senate bill was more moderate, only repealing the rent limits for residents making over 50 percent of the area median income — ironically, the very working-class tenants the “reforms” were intended to attract to public housing.

“There were a number of issues we weren’t able to resolve,” Lazio spokesman Mark Woolley told City Limits Weekly. A memo from another Lazio staffer obtained by the weekly cited two dozen disputed differences, most prominently the Long Island Republican’s insistence on repealing the entire Housing Act.

Ironically, the Brooke Amendment was passed in 1969 in response to an earlier deregulation measure. In 1959, Congress gave local housing authorities the power to set rents. But as these authorities raised rents in response to rising costs, thousands of public-housing tenants found themselves paying more than half their income in rent. The Brooke law amended the Housing Act to set the maximum rent at 25 percent of the tenant’s income, with a minimum rent of 10 percent of income added in 1974. In 1981, the Reagan administration set rent at 30 percent of income for all tenants.

“The Brooke Amendment,” said a statement from the National Housing Law Project, “is the keystone that holds the federal housing assistance programs together. It guarantees that poor people do not pay more than they can afford. Without it, the federal housing assistance programs would lose all relevance for the poorest people in this country, because the rents in assisted housing would rise catastrophically above their means.” Noting the steady increase in rents since the 1950s, it called the idea of increasing the maximum rent “regressive injustice, not progressive equity.”

“Someone has to draw the line somewhere,” it concluded, or federal housing programs “will fail their intended mission of making decent housing available to people with low incomes.”

However, tenants and advocates cannot rest on their success. Similar measures are likely to be introduced again next year, and the federal housing budget for fiscal 1997 has suspended the traditional requirement that any public-housing units eliminated must be replaced on a one-for-one basis.