BOSTON/Government Center – Proposed federal cuts to the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) continues to spark criticism from city officials and housing advocates. Convening a hearing in the chambers of the Boston City Council earlier this month, Housing Committee Chair and district 5 Councilor Rob Consalvo said cuts to Community Development Block Grants and the Section 8 Voucher Program would have a “severe impact.” At-large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley said cuts to HUD's 2012 budget affecting Boston was “a sobering shot in the arm...this is more than just balancing a ledger...behind every number there is a person and a life.”
In his 2011 State of the Union speech, President Obama pledged to freeze domestic, non-security, discretionary spending for the next five years; extending a three year freeze he supported in his 2010 State of the Union address.
The MIRA Coalition, the Boston-based organization that advocates on behalf of immigrants and other disenfranchised residents, recently wrote on their blog that the President's proposed cuts to Community Service Block Grants (CSBG), “will decimate successful and fiscally-efficient programs such as the Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) and Tri-City Community Action Program (Tri-Cap) in Malden. These programs, along with the 1000 plus agencies across 99 percent of U.S. counties, together retained over 18,000 jobs, and help provide critical support in employment, workforce training, housing, utilities, child care, disabilities services, etc.”
Republicans dismissed the President's 2012 budget proposal and said it doesn't do enough to reduce the federal deficit. Newly elected representatives aligned with the Tea Party Caucus have said numerous times they believe their constituents want them to bring “an end to big government” and entitlements.
According to the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, based in Washington, D.C., Massachusetts stands to lose approximately 62 percent of funds for community development grants and 43 percent of public housing capital funds if cuts to the federal budget amounting to approximately $61 Billion approved by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives are enacted.
HUD's mission includes financing the acquisition and maintenance of “quality affordable rental homes” and building “inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination.” Battles over the department's budget have been waged nearly every year since 1965 when the agency's head became a cabinet level post.
Photos by Diana Mai. Copyright 2011 Diana Mai.
Public housing advocates with the Jamaica Plain based National Alliance for HUD Tenants (NAHT) say HUD's overall funding would decrease by more than five billion dollars under the House of Representatives plan. That includes nearly one and half billion for the Section 8 Voucher program that allows poor and low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to stay in rental housing.
NAHT Executive Director Michael Kane, testifying before members of the Housing Committee at the City Council hearing on February 14, described budget numbers released by the House Committee Committee as “pretty horrible.”
Noting that Republicans wish to exact deep cuts in current HUD expenditures, Kane said the House budget would eliminate “two thirds of the city's block grant program...it's $13 Million, this would go into effect in March if they pass it or April at the latest. These are very draconian cuts that are going to cause layoffs, increase unemployment and homelessness.”
Jacqueline Philyaw, a resident of the Marcus Garvey Apartments in Roxbury and President of the Tenants Association, said “it is unacceptable for Congress to kick elderly people, people with disabilities, and children, out of their homes while wealthy people can take tax deductions on their vacation homes.”
Philyaw, whose housing development belongs to the Massachusetts Alliance of HUD Tenants (MAHT), the local affiliate of NAHT, said the Alliance supports eliminating the federal mortgage interest deduction on second homes, as a way to fund subsidized housing programs. According to estimates released by the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, the mortgage interest deduction in total will cost the U.S. Treasury between $100 and 107 Billion in 2012.
Historically, The National Association of Realtors and housing construction trade groups have opposed attempts to eliminate the deduction, arguing tax breaks are a crucial incentive for home ownership.
Boston City Council Resolution
On February 16th, during its regular weekly meeting, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution sponsored by Councilor Consalvo “urging the MA Congressional delegation to oppose federal funding cuts to HUD and to other housing funding that would severely impact the City of Boston.”
During comments in support of the resolution, Consalvo noted that both the city and the federal governments face huge deficits relative to their budgets but that locally elected officials need to “do whatever we can, to one, talk some sense into folks down in Washington, about real people and real people we represent and what these devastating cuts will mean, but also to work together as a team here in the city of Boston about how we're going to mitigate these cuts and how we're going to continue to serve our housing population, and how we're going to make sure that every single person who wants it has access to safe, decent, affordable housing...”
Consalvo added, “...it's only going to get worse, it's going to get far worse, before it gets better, and we're all going to be scrambling to deal with the federal budget issues.”
Several members of the MA Congressional delegation have pledged their support publicly to efforts to try and maintain at least level funding for publicly subsidized housing programs and prevent cuts to current expenditures. In a letter to the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, Democratic Congressman Barney Frank wrote in part: “I agree with Congressman Spencer Bachus and others that America is spending much too much on cities. Unfortunately, the cities that we are spending too much on, do not as a whole tend to be in the United States. They are in Iraq and they are in Afghanistan; they are in Japan; they are in Germany; they are in Italy; they are in England. We spend enormous amounts of money dwarfing anything that helps put policemen on the street or helping to deal with the problem of abandoned housing in our neighborhoods. We spend far more in military activities elsewhere.”
Valentine's Day “Have a Heart” Protest
Following the City Council hearing on Valentine's Day, organizers with NAHT and their supporters marched across the Government Center plaza to the JFK Federal Building to seek an audience with Republican Senator Scott Brown. According to NAHT's Michael Kane, Brown previously has spoken in favor of protecting individual housing developments but has remained silent on whether he will support or oppose HUD budget cuts when the Senate takes up the debate in the coming weeks. Advocates for a variety of social programs - decimated in the House budget proposal - say they are cautiously optimistic that the Democrat Party controlled Senate and President Obama will look for other ways to trim the federal deficit.
While Senator Brown was not available to speak with NAHT activists on Valentine's Day, staffers in his Boston office agreed to see six of the housing advocates. They carried Valentine's Day cards, flowers, and a letter requesting a meeting with the Senator.
Officers with the Federal Protective Service, the police branch that guards federal buildings, would not allow reporters carrying electronic recording equipment to accompany the activists into the JFK building. Following a request by OMB, an officer spoke to a staffer in Brown's office who said they would not receive anyone from the press.
About a half hour later, following speeches and chanting by housing supporters on the sidewalk in front of the building, the six NAHT and MAHT advocates emerged to greet their colleagues. Michael Kane said no specific meeting date with Senator Brown was scheduled. But in response to a reporter's question regarding Brown's reluctance so far to publicly support tenants who rely on vouchers or other federal subsidies in order to stay in their homes, Kane said, “last fall he raised people's hopes by [writing] a letter [in support] to the Appropriations Committee – the only Republican Senator who did – but then he pulled the plug on the entire bill. So it's kind of disappointing that he's playing both sides.
And now the reason that we and the whole country are in this fix, facing $100 billion in cuts from these crazy tea party people in the House...is because they didn't pass the budget last December, thanks to Senator Brown and a handful of other Republicans that could have made the difference. So they have to be held accountable for putting us in this fix and they better deliver on getting these programs salvaged from the budget.”
Attempts by OMB to reach Senator Brown's Washington D.C. press aide and to find out the Senator's intentions on the looming budget showdown were unsuccessful.