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Published: Wednesday, 10/6/2004

Messing with Section 8

IF THE government gives a program enough trouble, sooner or later it begins to wither away. That's what the Bush Administration is doing to Section 8, the federal housing subsidy program which gives vouchers to the poor. The administration's cavalier and confusing treatment gives landlords little reason to stay in the program, and if they opt out, many poor Americans will have no place to go but the streets.

The proposed changes are based on a faulty formula. The Department of Housing and Urban Development wants to reduce the amount of subsidized housing vouchers for poor residents in big cities like New York City and New England urban areas. The formula to decrease the subsidies is based on averaging the high rent in big cities with that charged in suburban areas, where rates are usually lower.

You don't have to be a federal bureaucrat to know that averaging rent in big cities with that in suburban towns means the big city renters will lose out. The change would force 1.9 million families to pay hundreds of dollars more on their monthly rent, money many don't have. These families are already stretched to the limit. This move is hardly an exercise in "compassionate conservatism."

To their credit, not all Republicans agree with the proposal. U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut says thousands of tenants would become homeless. A Queens real estate broker adds, "And there are going to be guys who pull out of the market, there are going to be fewer Section 8 apartments available, and there are going to be more people in the shelters."

If the program is broken, fix it. But the administration's theory is suspect. Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson said in the New York Times in August that Section 8 is expanding too rapidly, overtaking other programs, and that the formula used now doesn't reflect current conditions. Still, the proposed change cuts subsidies and improves nothing.

If Mr. Jackson's comments are intended to help gain acceptance for the new formula, they're not working. If there is fraud, deal with it. If the program needs repairing, repair it. But don't propose changes on the pretense of accommodating fair market rent when the poor could be put out on the street. If that happens, we will all be worse off, and in the short run, too.



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