Advocates rally to oppose proposed federal housing budget cuts

Some 100 supporters of affordable housing gathered Saturday as part of a national week of action designed to drum up opposition to President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to the federal budget.

Adriana Foster, a member of the Baltimore Housing Roundtable, addressed the crowd, which met at the National Federation of the Blind’s headquarters in South Baltimore’s Riverside neighborhood. She said Maryland was already struggling to provide people with housing they could afford and were proposed cuts to the Housing and Urban Affairs Department budget to become law, things would be worse.

“Every day, we know people are hurting,” she said.

Trump has proposed decreasing HUD’s budget by $7 billion, cutting the number of vouchers people can use to subsidize their rent, raising the cap on the proportion of income that public housing tenants can be asked to pay, and eliminating grant programs. The president’s budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, has said that there’s too much focus on the people who receive help from government programs and too little thought given to taxpayers who fund the programs.

While the budget is highly unlikely to become law, advocates at the meeting Saturday said that they’re concerned that the House of Representatives is considering similar ideas. The cuts would cost Maryland $173 million and mean more than 6,000 families losing rent subsidies, they said.

The meeting capped a week advocates dubbed “Our Homes, Our Voices.” The original plan was for an outdoor rally in McKeldin Square at the Inner Harbor, but the event was moved inside because of inclement weather.

Some in the crowd still held large signs, but the atmosphere was sedate. Speeches by politicians and people who have benefited from government support to afford a home were punctuated by interludes of music and poetry. “A rally without art is just sad,” said one of the event’s hosts.

Activists urged supporters to petition Rep. Andy Harris, the sole Republican member of Maryland’s congressional delegation, to lend his help to their cause. Harris said through a spokeswoman that he supported the cuts because of the size of the federal deficit.

“We have to prioritize federal spending to those areas like defense, homeland security, and the [National Institutes of Health], which could not be done by state and local governments,” Harris said.

In addition to protesting changes at the federal level, the meeting aimed to build support for causes at the local and state levels. They include aid for people whose landlords are taking them to court and proposed legislation requiring landlords to accept voucher payments.

English Harper, who said he suffered a serious spine injury in a car accident, described how a new landlord who took over the building where he lived in Baltimore County declined to accept his housing voucher, forcing him to find a new place to live.

“It’s been a nerve-racking experience,” he said.

Del. Stephen Lafferty, a Baltimore County Democrat, has been championing legislation for the past several years in the General Assembly to stop landlords from taking that kind of action. His bill passed in the House of Delegates for the first time this year but stalled in the Maryland Senate.

“Ending discrimination based on source of income should be a no-brainer,” he said.

But the proposed legislation was contentious, running into stereotypes about the kinds of people who get government help to pay for housing, who are often blamed for creating crime and disorder.

Sen. Will C. Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, told the crowd that those fears haven’t been borne out in jurisdictions that have acted on their own to pass similar measures.

“The sky hasn’t fallen,” he said.

Other speakers focused on work to guarantee legal representation for people facing eviction. The idea is sometimes called a “civil Gideon” after the landmark Supreme Court case that found defendants have a constitutional right to a lawyer in criminal cases.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, said the concept was an important one because legislators can pass a law, but there is no guarantee it will be used or applied fairly.

“You need a lawyer to make sure it applies to everyone,” he said.

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