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A Nearly Hidden Horror of the Sequester

The sequester means that most federal budgets must be reduced by as much as five percent. Housing is taking a huge hit. I’ve been stewing about it for days now. I want to ask the important people in Washington – starting with the one in the White House – how could they let something like this happen? How, in the richest, most powerful country on the planet, could they visit such cruelty on people?

The story is being spread that the “sequester,” has not turned out as harmful as had been expected, indeed, that it is causing very little harm. Don’t believe it.
On June 30, the Washington Post, a predictable outlet for arguments for gutting critical social services, carried a misleading, ill-informed article by David A. Fahrenthold and Lisa Rein. It alleged that the ongoing federal budget cut “may not be as draconian in its economic impact as some (such as the President) had predicted.” Sequester “wasn’t a cleaver,” it concluded. “It wasn’t a scalpel. It was more like liposuction — carefully removing the things that would be missed the least.”
Like rental housing assistance for the poor and disabled?
The sequester refers to a section of the Budget Control Act of 2011 that went into effect March 1. As part of a deal between the White House and the Congress resulting from a deadlock over the federal budget, it reduces approximately $85.4 billion in federal spending this year, with similar cuts for years 2014 through 2021
As a result of this ungodly political deal a whole lot of people are going to suffer needlessly.
According to the The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, African Americans received 43 percent of housing vouchers to while whites received 36 percent “Without the vouchers, these families would see those costs skyrocket. Other families will lose counseling services that help distressed homeowners navigate foreclosure proceedings,” it said.
“Housing vouchers are essential for preventing homelessness, and for helping families in emergency shelters or other temporary housing move into more permanent stable housing,” wrote blogger msmolly on FireDogLake. “Often communities prioritize homeless individuals and families for receipt of these vouchers. But many housing agencies now are ‘shelving’ vouchers — not reissuing vouchers to families on the waiting list when other families leave the program. As agencies shelve vouchers because of sequestration’s cuts, the number of vouchers available to families that are homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness will shrink dramatically. This lengthens the amount of time that families remain homeless and causes other homeless families to be turned away from emergency shelters because they are full. Some agencies also are withdrawing vouchers from families that have recently received them but are still searching for a suitable apartment, and thus have not yet begun to use them. (Agencies can shelve or withdraw vouchers without notice to, or permission from, HUD.)”
Last week, housing activist Lynda Carson reported in the San Francisco Bay View community newspaper that, “a survey conducted by the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association involving 300 housing agencies from 41 states, the situation looks very grim for the poor. At least 51 agencies reported that they will terminate vouchers during the next six months, and an additional 75 agencies have reported that the budget cuts known as sequestration will result in higher rents for voucher holders throughout their jurisdictions.”
What’s more, this threat to render more people homeless is taking place under a shroud of relative silence. By and large the major mass media appears to be unaware that this is going on or reticent about delving into it. Some newspapers noted back in March that there would be severe cuts to the rental assistance programs when the sequester kicked in but not many have had much to say about it since it did – with a few notable exceptions.
“That's because so much of what the government does affects the nation in local, decentralized ways,” economist Robert Reich wrote last April. “Federal funds find their way to community housing authorities, state unemployment offices, local school districts, private universities and companies. So it's hard for most Americans to see that the sequestration is responsible for the lost funding, lost jobs or just plain inconvenience.
“These cuts - and thousands like them - are so particular and localized; they don't feel as if they're the result of a change in national policy.”
“A second reason the sequestration hasn't been visible is that a large share of the cuts are in programs for the poor - and America's poor are often invisible,” Reich added. “Bear in mind, finally, that the sequestration is just starting. The sheer scale of it is guaranteed to make it far more apparent in coming months.”
Funds are allotted to local communities for rental assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the Section 8 voucher designed to helps low-income families, the elderly and the disabled find affordable housing. Those who receive these vouchers pay rent amounts between 30 and 40 percent of their income. Government officials estimate that as many as 125,000 families could lose assistance from the housing choice voucher program due to the sequestration cuts.
“These cuts, which housing agencies have already begun to implement (primarily by failing to reissue vouchers to families on waiting lists when other families leave the program), will fall heavily on vulnerable people,” wrote Douglas Rice for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities back in April. “Half of the households in the voucher program include seniors or people with disabilities, while most of the rest are families with children. These households typically have incomes well below the poverty line and cannot afford housing without assistance. Some who will go without assistance face extreme hardship, such as living in homeless shelters.”
“The cuts come at a time when the number of low-income families in need of housing assistance has been rising substantially, there are long waiting lists for vouchers in almost every community, and homelessness remains a persistent problem,” Rice continued.
In Fairfax, Va., as many as 150 homeless individuals or families, and others on the long voucher waiting list, are expected to be turned down this year. “We have already seen the effects of sequestration in the lack of housing choice vouchers,” said DC Coalition for the Homeless executive director Mike Ferrell, who presented the results of the annual homeless survey at the May meeting of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments board of directors. Ferrell attributed much of the region’s progress in addressing homelessness to the use of permanent supportive housing and rental assistance programs. The freeze could impact those efforts, he said.
Penelope Gross, a board member at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, told Huffington Post May 31, “We had 50 families that were about to receive vouchers. We said ‘Oops. The funding has dried up from the federal government. You can’t have them.’ ”
“They were getting ready to be successful and suddenly they got the legs cut out from under them,” said Gross.
About 1,700 poor families in and around Sacramento, Ca. are said to face losing housing vouchers. According to Crain’s, agencies that administer Section 8 in New York City will not issue as many as 6,000 new vouchers that had been planned for this year, while thousands in the system face subsidy cuts. KCVTV in Kansas City, Missouri recently reported that 33 families there have recently faced eviction because of the sequester cuts.
Housing for the poor in Greater Cincinnati will take a huge hit in the coming months when federal budget cuts eliminate financial help for about 1,000 needy families and force layoffs at the city’s housing authority.
Officials at the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority said last week the cuts mandated by the sequester represent a massive blow to the agency, which serves more than 15,000 low-income families throughout Hamilton County. No families will be removed from the program, but no new families will be added for at least the next nine months. The agency estimates that will reduce the number of families receiving rent vouchers to 10,200 by next March, down from more than 11,200 in January. “It’s safe to say our voucher program will be reduced,” Gregory Johnson, the agency’s executive director, told “It’s unfortunate because we have a high waiting list. There are folks that definitely need help.”
The sequester means that most federal budgets must be reduced by as much as five percent. For the city of Houston, for instance, that means a reduction of $7 million in federal assistance. "One way to get rid of the $7 million cut would be to serve 888 less households for an entire year," Tory Gunsolley, president and CEO of the Houston Housing Authority, which provides rental assistance to 15,000 households a year, told the Houston Chronicle. "Do we serve less people, or do we serve people less well?"
“Some families could see additional rent increases as the city and county end most exemptions to a rule requiring two people per bedroom, regardless of age and gender,” reported the Chronicle. “Sequestration also could slow a countywide effort to end chronic homelessness, as it becomes more difficult to use a portion of the vouchers to move homeless people into stable housing and as the increased rents for current recipients may threaten their stability.”
Sean Rogan, executive director of the county Los Angeles Community Development Commission/Housing Authority, told the Daily News in March, ” "If it comes down to us having to terminate vouchers, we've exempted seniors, the homeless and our special needs population," he added. "We would terminate those who've been on the program the longest and have received the greatest benefit."
Santa Clara, Ca. County official say they have lost $21 million in funding and “desperately is searching for ways to avoid the worst-case scenario -- pulling vouchers from some of the 17,000 households it serves."
“We're being put in an untenable position of having to decide winners and losers among the most vulnerable," Alex Sanchez, executive director of the Santa Clara County Housing Authority told the San Jose Mercury News. "We're forced to pit one group of poor people against another group. Seniors versus the disabled. Homeless versus working-poor families. It's an impossible choice with terrible consequences."
That’s in Silicon Valley, where high tech moguls build mansions and rents are outrageously high.
Another exception to the dearth of media attention to the sequester rent subsidy crisis is in Berkeley, Ca. where the campus newspaper the Daily Californian reports “Looming sequester cuts pose grim challenges for city officials.” There, staff writer Mary Zhou wrote June 22, “Due to March’s federal budget cuts, known as the sequester, Berkeley Housing Authority has cut 14 subsidized housing vouchers from low-income individuals while also suspending about 200 households in the final stages of applications.”
“Low-income families who are really struggling in this economy don’t have the resources to mount a huge campaign to bombard Capitol Hill,” says Amelia Kegan, senior policy analyst at Bread for the World. “They are most likely to be left out of any legislative attempts to mitigate the impact of sequestration. Congress needs to replace sequestration and deal with the entire thing and take a much more balance approach.”
Kegan added: “We don’t want to see a situation where those who are the most vulnerable are the ones left bearing the brunt of deficit reduction.”
I’ve been stewing about it for days now. I want to ask the important people in Washington – starting with the one in the White House – how could they let something like this happen? How, in the richest, most powerful country on the planet, could they visit such cruelty on people?
“With the sequestration, America has adopted austerity economics,” wrote Reich, a former U.S. secretary of labor. “Yet austerity economics is the wrong medicine at exactly the wrong time. Look what it's done to Europe.”
And look what it’s doing to unemployed, low income and people with disabilities right here at home. Editorial Board member and Columnist Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union. Bloice is one of the moderators of Portside. Other Carl Bloice writing can be found at