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Federal Offense 

Will the Bush administration cuts to Section 8 housing push Vermonter's poorest out of their homes?

Elizabeth T. wakes up every morning at 4:30, not because she's a morning person, but so her family won't end up out on the street. She gets her kids up by 5, dresses them and walks them a few blocks to their grandmother's house, where they sleep for another hour before getting ready for school. Then Elizabeth, who has to be at work by 6, walks more than two miles to her job at a college in Burlington. There is no bus line running near her house, and she can't afford a car -- Elizabeth earns just two dollars above minimum wage. She splurges on a taxi only when it's absolutely necessary. "When it's 20 below zero and it takes me a half-hour to get to work, I'm not going to get frostbite at 5:30 in the morning," she says.

Elizabeth's full-time job pays her $290 a week, after taxes. The rent on her three-bedroom apartment in Burlington is $1200 a month. It doesn't take a math whiz to figure that, without outside help, she and her three children couldn't afford to live. Fortunately, Elizabeth has a Section 8 housing voucher, which allows her to pay just 30 percent of her income toward rent. The federal government picks up the balance.

But Elizabeth, who doesn't want her full name used, is uncomfortable telling people that she's on Section 8 -- she says they often treat her like she's lazy. "It really irritates me that people have that opinion," Elizabeth says. "I'm working my tail off and I'm exhausted all the time. I'm working really hard and can't get anywhere."

In fact, Elizabeth gets no other government assistance. She receives child support for her three kids, and her oldest son, who is 21 and living at home, also brings in a paycheck. Nevertheless, their collective income for a family of four is under $20,650, an amount the federal government classifies as "extremely low income."

Nevertheless, it falls within an income range the Bush administration plans to make ineligible for Section 8.

Elizabeth and her family are among the more than two million individuals and families nationwide who rely on Section 8 rental vouchers to make ends meet. By any measure, they are the most vulnerable members of society: extremely low-income families, disabled veterans, senior citizens on fixed incomes, the mentally ill. More than 60 percent of them are families with children; one in six of those households is headed by an elderly or disabled person. More than one-fifth of all Section 8 recipients are disabled.

But on April 22, the Bush administration announced the most drastic budget cuts ever made to the Section 8 program. Funding for 2005 will be more than $1 billion lower than the amount allocated for 2004. In the past, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave state and local housing authorities enough money to cover the cost of all their vouchers, even as inflation and other market forces increased rents. But now, in an effort to control spending, HUD has adopted a new funding system that is leaving housing agencies across the country short of funds. Meanwhile, the White House has proposed even deeper cuts after 2005. For the first time in the program's 30-year history, Section 8 tenants could be evicted from their homes for no reason other than that they're too poor to pay their rent. In Vermont, that could mean an estimated 740 families go without housing next year.

Thursday is eviction day for the folks working at the Rental Opportunity Center in the Old North End, and for the first time in five years, the tenant being kicked to the curb is the Center itself. Since 1999, the nonprofit housing-assistance office has served as a drop-in clinic of sorts, treating the various housing "ailments" that afflict Burlington's poorest residents: bad credit, unpaid utility bills, back-due rent and eviction notices. In the last 12 months alone, the Center has found permanent housing for 114 families who would have otherwise slept in shelters, cars or on the streets.

Until last week, the Rental Opportunity Center was jointly funded by the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS) and the Burlington Housing Authority (BHA). But when the federal government slashed BHA's funding in April -- and made those cuts retroactive to the first of the year -- the Rental Opportunity Center was forced to close its doors.

The disappointment is visible on the face of 23-year-old Mosha Hunter-Wade as she shows up Thursday afternoon with her 3-year-old son Davan, her sister and her sister's baby, all of who are looking for a place to live. "Ah, man. Am I too late?" asks Hunter-Wade, looking around at the bare walls and empty desks.

"Sorry, we just closed today," says Stacy Haines, the administrative assistant whose primary job today is to break the bad news to people and redirect them to other agencies. As if on cue, the infant lets out a piercing wail. Hunter-Wade and her family have been walking around Burlington all morning looking for an apartment, unsuccessfully. She stopped by the Center to get a free copy of her credit report. Apparently, an unpaid phone bill is keeping landlords from approving her rental applications.

Hunter-Wade is better off than many of the people who come in -- she already has an apartment, but needs a bigger one. She is one of 1711 families in the Burlington area that receive Section 8 vouchers from the BHA. She says she doesn't know what she'll do if she loses her voucher. Her sister and her kids, who don't have their own place, split their time between Hunter-Wade's apartment and their mother's house. But their mother also pays her rent with the help of a Section 8 voucher. If BHA cuts them off, all three families would become homeless.

Several minutes later, Haines is talking to another couple that's looking for a one-bedroom apartment. They moved out of a place in Winooski a year ago because the landlord refused to do essential repairs to the water heater and electrical system. Ever since, the couple has been staying in a motel at $250 a week. That arrangement has all but depleted what little money they'd put aside for a security deposit. Haines learns that the couple doesn't have a Section 8 voucher.

She sighs, but isn't surprised. When the budget cuts were announced in April, there were already more than 1300 names on BHA's two-year waiting list for Section 8 vouchers. The BHA is no longer adding new names to the list, and has even begun purging existing ones. Haines offers the couple a few leads on apartments, but she doesn't sound terribly optimistic.

"It's very sad," she says, after they leave. "For a while, I felt like I was making a difference, giving people that little ounce of hope. I don't know anymore."

Haines worked at the Rental Opportunity Center for only a few months, but had a few success stories while she was there. She helped a 22-year-old pregnant woman find an apartment. She and her husband had been living in a motel off and on. But because they didn't have reliable housing, their two kids were taken into custody by Social and Rehabilitative Services, and the woman feared she'd lose her new baby as well if they remained homeless. Haines found them an apartment, which enabled them to keep their baby and reunite with one of their other kids.

But for every success story, Haines admits there are more people who fall through the cracks. Once, she recalls, an elderly woman who couldn't read or write came in for assistance. The woman, who received only $600 per month from Social Security, was evicted from her apartment because she couldn't pay her rent. Haines sent her to COTS to meet with a caseworker. The woman never showed up.

"She just dropped off the face of the Earth," Haines says. "I don't know if she's living on the streets or staying at a friend's house. But there's really nothing else I could do for her because we didn't have a phone number to get in touch with her."

Haines says it's especially tough turning away parents who are desperate to find housing just so they can keep their family together. Until recently, the BHA was giving out so-called "Family Unification Vouchers," which gave immediate priority to families at risk of losing custody of their children due to homelessness. But with the budget cuts now in effect, the BHA only has enough money to fund existing vouchers through the end of December. It's a situation that has local shelters and homeless advocates bracing for the worst.

"This is the worst assault on housing I've ever seen," says COTS Executive Director Rita Markley. "You can't say that you value life and family values on the one hand and then pull the rug out from families with the other. It's just untenable."

At the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, which has seen the number of pantry visits jump 19 percent in the last year, Administrative Coordinator Sarah Barnett says the ripple effect will be felt by everyone in Burlington. "Not only does this leave people homeless and not able to pay their bills, but it creates this general despair and hopelessness," Barnett says. "Talk to the people in the business community. Do they want Vermont to be a place where you have homeless people all over the streets and in shantytowns? These people are not going to just disappear."

Homeless advocates like Markley also predict that these cuts will be felt by Vermont's hospitals and clinics, especially in the numbers of children they treat. A five-year Harvard study found that homeless children have twice the rate of emergency hospitalizations, four times the rate of respiratory infections, four times the rate of asthma and five times as many stomach infections. Not surprisingly, homeless families are far more likely than others to turn to emergency rooms as their primary health-care providers.

Other effects of these cuts will be far more difficult to quantify. "What's the impact on a 7-year-old child when she comes home from school and her entire world is out on the sidewalk because she's been evicted because her parents couldn't pay the rent?" Mark-ley asks. "How do you calculate what it feels like when kids are called 'shelter trash' on the playground?"

The irony of these latest budget cuts is that the Section 8 program, which was created by Congress in 1975, has been popular with Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Paul Dettman, executive director of BHA, points out that Republicans have historically liked the program because it allows people to rent privately owned apartments, thereby benefitting local landlords. Democrats have liked it because it gives tenants the freedom to move wherever they want and doesn't "ghettoize" the poor into large, unsightly public-housing projects. But Dettman believes these latest cuts reflect a paradigm shift in Washington's attitude towards housing the poor.

"This administration is coming at it from a completely different perspective," Dettman says. "The thing that's striking is the complete indifference about the consequences of what they're doing and the way they're doing it. They are just barreling ahead, regardless of the consequences."

Dettman says that his agency will have enough money to pay for existing Section 8 vouchers through the holidays. Does that mean the New Year will bring eviction notices to some of Vermont's most vulnerable? "We will try to avoid that," Dettman says.

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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