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HUD vouchers would permit poor to choose housing

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Henry G. Cisneros, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, yesterday laid out plans that would dramatically alter the face of public housing by giving poor people vouchers that would allow them to live anywhere they choose.

The restructuring of HUD is intended to help President Clinton pay for his proposed middle-class tax break, but it's also part of a larger effort at "reinventing government" begun 20 months ago by Vice President Al Gore. The effort took on urgency after the Nov. 8 elections, when President Clinton told Cabinet officers to examine their agencies as part of a budget- and tax-cutting initiative.

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The plan to "reinvent" HUD would give local governments and residents of subsidized housing broad choices over the way federal aid is spent. The initiative includes an $800 million cut in HUD's $30 billion budget over five years and lumps 60 HUD programs into three grant areas over the next three years.

Voucher programs, which give poor residents the choice of moving into better-off communities, have come under intense fire in some communities, including Baltimore County, where a program called Moving to Opportunity (MTO) created a heated dispute when it was launched last fall.

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MTO, intended to help 285 Baltimore families to move from public housing into better neighborhoods in the city and surrounding suburbs, became a target of opposition in eastern Baltimore County. Residents said they feared their neighborhoods would be flooded by poor families from the inner city. In response to the uproar, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, used her position as chairwoman of a Senate appropriations subcommittee to kill future MTO funding.

Nonetheless, Mr. Cisneros sees the voucher plan as an important element in restoring America's poorest communities and uplifting cities. Asked whether he expected opposition from suburban areas about his plan to allow housing-project residents to live anywhere they want, Mr. Cisneros replied: "If anyone is saying that the policy should be to concentrate poor people in one place, we reject that."

The HUD plan would also transform the Federal Housing Administration, which makes low-cost mortgages available to homebuyers by providing mortgage insurance, into a government-owned corporation free of many government purchasing rules.

"This is as bold a change as I think you've seen since the creation of the agency," Mr. Cisneros said at a briefing yesterday.

Most of the plans for HUD, an agency often panned for having a strangling bureaucracy and doing little to improve poor neighborhoods, must be approved by the Republican-controlled Congress, where their fate is uncertain.

In addition to moving away from a broad array of federal programs to programs designed by states and cities, the HUD plan would remake public housing by giving residents of all of the nation's nearly 1.5 million public-housing units subsidies that they could use to live in other areas. Meanwhile, even low-income-housing advocates who generally support the idea of giving housing vouchers to public housing tenants cautioned that Mr. Cisneros might be moving too quickly with his proposal to move to a voucher system within three years.

"Vouchers and certificates -- there are some very positive aspects to those," said Bob Adams, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a national advocacy group. "But the notion of converting all of public housing somehow in the wave of a hand to a voucher and certificate program certainly raises a lot of questions. To some extent, it seems like these proposals represent an overreaction to the problems that exist in a relatively small number of housing projects."

Mr. Adams said that despite the common perception that housing projects are drug- and crime-infested and grossly mismanaged, only 105 of the nation's 3,400 housing authorities are deemed troubled by HUD.

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In developing his voucher plan for the agency, Mr. Cisneros said he envisioned that many public housing tenants would choose to remain in their current homes.

He said the change to housing vouchers would put housing authorities into competition with other landlords who provide low-income housing. And that, he added, can only lead to improved living conditions.

In large cities like Baltimore, which typically have large stocks of crumbling public housing, the mass availability of housing vouchers could result in huge numbers of tenants' abandoning housing projects.

"It is kind of doubtful that the market can absorb and accommodate that many people," said Barbara A. Samuels, a housing attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. Rep. James Leach, an Iowa Republican who is set to be the next chairman of the House Banking Committee, which oversees housing programs, did not react directly to Mr. Cisneros' plan. But he said: "We're going to have to keep our eye on the major issue, which is how it is that we achieve more housing for more Americans."

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said he was concerned about the planned cut in HUD funding, which Mr. Cisneros said would be phased in over five years. Otherwise, he said, he generally favored what he knew of Mr. Cisneros' plan.

"I don't have a problem with the block-grant process," he said. "And, when it comes to vouchers, I have long favored the concept that people ought to live where they want to live. I know that Baltimore cannot survive if it remains the repository for the state's poor and the region's poor."


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