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A backward approach to housing

Congress is nearing agreement on legislation that would undermine the government's ability to provide adequate and affordable housing for the poor. Bold initiatives passed by the House and Senate last year would effectively take public housing away from the people who need it most, and give it to those who do not need it at all. Unless the legislation is significantly modified in conference, it deserves the president's veto.

The legislation laudably attempts to break the cycle of poverty among people in public housing by encouraging more working families to move into their communities. The objective is to promote working-class values in areas plagued by chronic unemployment and welfare dependency. But this well-intended experiment in social engineering is bound to backfire because the approach Congress has chosen is backward.

Rather than expand public housing programs to accommodate the working families lawmakers hope to attract, the bills would make it more difficult for people with the most urgent financial needs to be eligible for existing public housing.

The Senate version of the legislation, sponsored by Florida's Connie Mack, is less onerous than New York Rep. Rick Lazio's bill that passed the House last year. But both measures have serious problems. The Senate legislation would cut by about 20 percent the number of new public housing units available for the poor. It would do this through attrition, not eviction, but it still could cause a housing crunch for the needy. The bill would also reduce by nearly a third the number of Section 8 vouchers that allow poor families to rent private housing units of their choice.

Cuts in the House legislation would be even steeper, and one particularly harsh provision would eliminate altogether a requirement that "project-based" public housing be made available to poor families. At the same time, families earning up to three times the poverty level, as much as $35,000, would become eligible for public housing assistance, even though most could afford to pay at least a portion of their own housing costs. Most worrisome, neither measure offers impoverished families ineligible for assistance a viable alternative to the streets.

Thinning out residential areas inhabited by a disproportionate number of people lacking jobs is sensible social policy. But Congress's awkward attempt to accomplish this goal lacks adequate safeguards or a sense of equity. Unless lawmakers write major changes into the compromise legislation they are considering, President Clinton should refuse to sign it.