1998 Federal Housing Legislation: Reality and Potential

Article excerpt

Everyone wants their housing and neighborhoods to be decent, safe, affordable, and close to job opportunities. Yet, many of our nation's housing assistance programs have fallen short of those goals. With the enactment of P.L. 105-276 (The, Department of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Act of 1999), however, substantial changes are underway in federal housing assistance programs.

These changes result in part from the interaction of two sections of this legislation--the appropriations for fiscal year 1999 (Title II) and the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of FY 1998 (Title V). As an example of their interaction, the 50,000 welfare-to-work vouchers for which funds were appropriated in 1999 foster one of the purposes of the act--to create economic opportunities for residents of dwelling units managed by public housing agencies (PHAs) to work, become self-sufficient, and make the transition out of public and federally assisted housing. Sustained funding, however, is critical for key features of Title V to achieve their potential.

The Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act

Through several features discussed below, the act partially devolves the authority for operating and managing federally assisted housing, although it does not devolve funding authority. The act lessens the federal role and expands the role for PHAs and residents to make decisions and, thereby, determine the housing circumstances for low-income families.

Program Restructuring

One of the major changes wrought by the act is the merger of the Section 8 certificate and voucher programs. The Section 8 certificate program set a ceiling on the rent beneficiaries could pay, while the voucher program did not. The two programs are merged by the act into one that is essentially the same as the voucher program. Thus, although the merged Section 8 tenant-based rental assistance program provides low-income families access to all the standard quality units in a housing market regardless of rent level, it does this at a price--and much of this price is borne by the low-income families, rather than the federal government.

The act also eliminated the Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) requirement for PHAs. Under the prior law, PHAs receiving funding for an increased number of units (either Section 8 or low-rent public housing) in any year had to establish a FSS program to serve the same number of families as they received increased units of assistance. FSS programs required families to develop a plan to move toward self-sufficiency and to sign a contract to work toward this goal. Without any additional funds, the PHAs were to help residents achieve their contractual goals by negotiating agreements with federal agencies and service providers to offer supportive services such as child care, remedial education, job training, and substance abuse treatment. Under the act, existing FSS programs are to be phased out as families fulfill their contracts.

Eliminating the FSS requirement may relate to the appropriation of funds during FY 1999 for welfare-to-work vouchers, which enabled selected persons living in assisted housing (i.e., current and former welfare recipients, persons eligible for welfare, and persons for whom the housing voucher is critical to their ability to obtain or retain employment) to relocate to achieve greater self-sufficiency. If welfare-to-work vouchers continue to receive funding, the act will remove the disincentive for PHAs to accept funding for new units of assistance that the FSS requirement represented and will replace it with program funding targeted to helping program beneficiaries become self-sufficient.

Rules governing the demolition or disposition of low-rent public housing also are liberalized by the act to allow the replacement of aged public housing dwelling units by tenant-based Section 8 assistance. …