WASHINGTON -- Venturing onto potentially explosive political turf, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole called yesterday for abolishing public housing and issuing vouchers to tenants instead, so they might live anywhere they could afford.
The likely Republican presidential nominee said government-owned housing is "one of the last bastions of socialism in the world." It has deepened poverty, he maintained, rather than reducing it.
"Housing vouchers, in my view, would enable poorer Americans to choose where they live, just like we do," Mr. Dole told the National Association of Realtors. "If they've got a voucher, they can take it to you, or somebody else, and you can help them."
Yesterday marked the first time Mr. Dole has injected the voucher issue in his presidential campaign. He offered no details, but a spokeswoman said he endorses a proposal by Republican Sens. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina and Spencer Abraham of Michigan that would do away with public housing and phase in vouchers over a five-year period.
In recent years, politicians of both parties, including President Clinton, have embraced the idea of housing vouchers. In practice, however, such plans have sometimes proven highly controversial.
A federal program known as Moving to Opportunity, designed to help 285 Baltimore families move from public housing to better neighborhoods in the city and suburbs, triggered fierce opposition in eastern Baltimore County in 1994. In response, Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland got Congress to shut off further government spending for the program.
Mr. Dole has "hit on a very hot issue, but he may not be coming at it the right way," said Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a voucher critic who has represented Baltimore County since last year.
'It would kill him' in Md.
"Dole has to be very specific about what he's advocating because the idea of vouchers alarms a lot of people. It would kill him in Maryland, but it could hurt him all over," Mr. Ehrlich said.
The latest uproar over housing vouchers in the congressman's district followed a court settlement that calls for black public-housing residents in Baltimore to move into mostly white middle- or upper-middle-class neighborhoods in surrounding counties. The plan, which includes Baltimore County, is awaiting final court approval.
"I think people don't mind giving a hand up to someone who is working to buy a home, but they really resent giving a handout to someone without a quid pro quo," said Mr. Ehrlich, who suggested that Mr. Dole would pick up more votes in his district by coming out against housing vouchers.
The notion of giving cash vouchers to the poor, so they could find their own place to rent or buy, gained national prominence in the 1980s when it was embraced by conservatives such as Jack F. Kemp, who served as housing secretary in the Bush administration.
More recently, after the Republican takeover of Congress, the Clinton administration floated a voucher plan, in part to counter GOP threats to abolish the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Clinton plan, which would have streamlined HUD but preserved it, went nowhere.
Several Republican voucher proposals are still alive in Congress, including the Faircloth-Abraham initiative backed by Mr. Dole.
So far, the legislation making the most progress is a more modest measure, scheduled for a House vote next week, that seeks to tighten, rather than replace, current housing programs.
George Peterson, a public housing analyst at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, expressed surprise that Mr. Dole had chosen to make vouchers "a prominent issue. This has proved to be inherently controversial."
Bob Adams, an advocate for public housing tenants, cautioned that taking 1.3 million poor families out of public housing and putting them into the real estate market would require expensive counseling and other assistance.
"The rhetoric sounds good, but the reality is it is very difficult," said Mr. Adams, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Among the problems that poor families face in trying to make the transition are discrimination, racial hostility and a shortage of decent, affordable housing in many communities, he said.
Voucher programs have been in operation for years in various big cities -- including one in Chicago that began in the 1970s -- often as part of court-ordered housing desegregation plans. Most have involved only a few hundred, or a few thousand, public housing residents at a time.
Pub Date: 4/30/96