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Housing voucher plan faces a lack of support

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration's proposal to give poor people vouchers to let them live wherever they can afford the rent faces daunting obstacles, including funding cutbacks and potential opposition from communities and Congress.

Public-housing advocates say the success of the voucher program, outlined last week as part of a broader plan to streamline the Department of Housing and Urban Development, could turn on unanswered questions: the dollar value of the vouchers; the availability of private, low-cost housing; the ability of housing authorities to tighten operations.

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Housing advocates also fear that fierce opposition in local communities could sink the plan, because the voucher initiative might generate a backlash from middle-class residents who do not want public housing tenants living in their midst.

"It has been my experience that whether you are black, white or yellow, and you work and you do the right thing, you will resent anyone moving into your neighborhood whom the government has decided should be given a boost over and above a helping hand," said Rep.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican.

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Earlier this year, Moving to Opportunity (MTO), a federal voucher program intended to help 285 Baltimore families move from public housing into better neighborhoods in the city and suburbs, ignited furious opposition in eastern Baltimore County.

Residents expressed concern that their neighborhoods would be flooded by poor families from the inner city. Responding to the uproar, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, used her position as chairman of a Senate appropriations subcommittee to block future MTO funding.

Asked to comment on the Clinton administration's voucher plan, Ms. Mikulski declined to do so, saying through a spokeswoman that she had not yet focused on the proposal.

HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros maintains that voucher programs have worked well in other places, including Chicago, where such a program was implemented after careful planning and with little fanfare.

A study of the Chicago program has found that the public housing residents who participated found jobs faster, performed better in school and had more stable lives than their counterparts left behind in their old communities.

But critics say that the Clinton administration's plan makes no mention of counseling and other support services that helped make the Chicago program a success.

As proposed, the restructuring of HUD would only give residents of the nation's 1.4 million public housing units the freedom to live anywhere they can afford.

The restructuring, which would take three years, is perhaps the biggest in the nearly 30-year history of HUD. But the size and speed of the changeover to vouchers have left supporters apprehensive.

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"I don't know how realistic it is to think that these people will have a choice," said Bob Adams, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. "In many cities, vouchers or certificates are not too useful because rents are too high."

Republican support

Most elements of the HUD restructuring -- including the voucher program -- must be approved by the Republican-controlled Congress. The newly empowered Republicans so far seem receptive to the idea of providing vouchers to the poor.

But they are also committed to cutting the HUD budget, which would likely shrink the value of the housing vouchers and strip recipients of meaningful housing choices because they could afford to live only in poor areas.

"Vouchers have been a concept that Republicans have generally embraced in a variety of different programs," said Rep. Rick Lazio, a New York Republican who is the incoming chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees HUD. "But I think some of our challenges are budgetary challenges. We are going to be under more budget pressures, and we may have to cut more."

Overshadowing the entire HUD restructuring is the emotionally charged question of whether to give poor people vouchers to rent in more expensive communities. Mr. Cisneros calls the concept crucial to revitalizing America's cities, which generally house a large share of the poor. In the Baltimore area, for example, 67 percent of the region's poor live in the city, often in densely populated, deteriorating neighborhoods.

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In Mr. Cisneros' view, the vouchers would allow the poor to move away from "reservations" of poverty.

"Concentrations of poverty make every social indicator worse," said Susan Goering, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "Kids do worse in schools where there is a concentration of poverty. It just becomes overwhelming, because poor kids often bring with them through the school doors additional disadvantages that need to be compensated."

In Baltimore, the idea of dispersing the poor will again be put into action next spring. That's when the first of six public high-rise towers at the Lafayette Courts housing project is to be demolished. The plan is to rebuild 60 percent of the project's units with lower-density townhouse construction and to give vouchers to the remaining tenants so they can find housing elsewhere.

While that approach is favored by many public-housing managers, in practice many voucher-type programs have led either to resegregation of the poor in a new location or opposition from their new neighbors.

"Even in the successes we've seen in these kind of programs, the numbers [of tenants] have been small compared with the huge numbers contemplated now," said Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. "Also, the market does not address the needs of everyone seeking housing. Some markets are closed to some people if they are low-income and they are minority. And we have to face that reality."

Mr. Cisneros says his plan would force the nation's housing authorities into competition with private landlords who provide low-income housing. He says the competition would require housing authorities, often known for corruption and inefficiency, to either clean up their acts or go out of business.

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Rejecting public housing

But that could become a problem for cities if tenants decide not to spend their vouchers at existing public low-income housing. Under the plan, the housing projects will move from being federally owned to city property supported by federal grant money. Much of the money would then go to tenants in the form of the housing vouchers.

But if voucher recipients don't choose low-income housing, which often is in disrepair, the money on hand for maintenance will be limited. And with less money, conditions would get worse, and city taxpayers could be asked to fix the problem.

"Mayors will be responsible for public housing that may or may not have adequate resources to support," Ms. Zaterman said. "And if you are in a city with a large public housing stock and a diminished tenant base, you will have to turn to local resources to address public-housing concerns."

'Reinventing government'

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 Republican sweep in the Nov. 8 elections, after which Mr. Clinton told Cabinet officers to examine their agencies as part of his budget- and tax-cutting initiative.

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"This appears to be a reaction to Nov. 8 vs. a pro-active attempt to really improve the delivery of affordable housing," said Julio Barreto, director of legislative services for the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.


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