HUD proposal to set minimum rent denounced


Public housing advocates are condemning proposals by the Bush administration to impose a minimum rent for public housing tenants and cut off funding for rebuilding old projects like those in Cherry Hill and O'Donnell Heights in Baltimore.

Requiring tenants to pay at least $50 a month regardless of their income could force hundreds in the Baltimore area to beg for the money, advocates and local officials warn.

"It's going to affect the poorest of the poor, people with no income. For these families, it would certainly create a hardship," said Lyle Schumann, deputy executive director of the Baltimore City Housing Authority.

"They are going to be forced to go to charities or other organizations for help. That's going to be very, very difficult," he added.

The minimum rent requirement is included in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development budget recently submitted to Congress. Schumann complained that HUD's budget also would eliminate any new funding for the HOPE VI program, which has been used to remake about a half-dozen public housing projects in Baltimore

He said elimination of HOPE VI could derail preliminary plans to use the program to rebuild several other city public housing developments, including Cherry Hill, O'Donnell Heights, Claremont and Westport.

Schumann said elimination of the HOPE VI program would be "a real blow" to the city's rebuilding efforts.

While some cities impose a minimum rent requirement on public housing tenants, regardless of income, Baltimore does not. Generally, public housing tenants are required to pay rent equal to about one-third of their monthly income. If they have no income, no rent is charged.

"Thirty percent of zero is zero," said Schumann.

Melvin Edwards, spokesman for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, said that about 710 families have their monthly rent set at less than $50. Of those, 113 pay no rent because they have no income.

Amey L. Epstein, director of the Harford County Housing Agency, said that the county used to have a $20 minimum rent, but no longer does. The proposed $50 minimum, she said, "will place a significant burden on some families."

In Carroll County, housing officials said about 19 families now pay the minimum rent of $25 a month. They said about nine of the 19 would be subject to the new $50 minimum.

Howard County Housing Commission Executive Director Leonard Vaughan said he anticipated the requirement would have minimal impact because most of the public housing tenants in the county already pay more than $50 a month.

Vaughan said he supports the concept of setting a minimum rent because it encourages work. "Anybody who is able-bodied should be required to work," he said.

Lauren Young of the Maryland Disability Law Center said the rent proposal was "a horrible plan that will harm the poorest of the poor."

She said many of those affected will be people with some disability or impairments that prevent them from being employed for some period of time.

"It flies in the face of logic," said J. Peter Sabonis of the Homeless Persons Representation Project.

Donna White, a spokeswoman for HUD, defended the minimum-rent proposal, stating that it was intended to promote work and self-sufficiency among public housing tenants.

White said 70 percent of housing authorities have minimum rents and 40 percent exceed the proposed $50 minimum.

"It is not a radical departure from what many are already doing. It's not brand new," said White.

She also said that under the proposal, those with certified disabilities would be specifically exempted from the $50 requirement.

Young, however, labeled the exemption "window dressing," stating that persons with certified disabilities qualify for cash from federal assistance programs and, as a result, most pay more than $50 a month.

"Many people," said Young, "have disabilities, but they don't recognize the fact and have not been adequately diagnosed. This can be true for people with mental health difficulties and even with developmental disabilities."

HUD officials contend that the added income from the new minimum rent will help financially strapped housing authorities.

Schumann, however, said that it was likely that any revenue increases would be offset by added costs to administer and monitor the minimum-rent requirement.

"It will produce a lot of real stress for the families and very few additional dollars for the housing authority. It will create a lot of paperwork and administrative headaches," said Schumann.

Housing advocates say that while an appeal procedure exists for those who contend the minimum rent is an undue hardship, any appeals have to be filed directly with HUD, making the process lengthy and difficult.

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