"Warehousing" the Poor?
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now we turn to an issue that surfaced during this presidential campaign, the future of federal housing programs. Margaret Warner has the debate.
MARGARET WARNER: Over the last few weeks, presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Bob Dole has been trying to define sharp differences between himself and President Clinton. Last week, his target was the administration’s housing policy.
In a speech to the National Association of Realtors, Sen. Dole suggested that if he were elected President, he would dismantle the Federal Housing program as currently run by the Department of Housing & Urban Development.
SEN. BOB DOLE, Majority Leader: Public housing is one of the last bastions of socialism in the world. Imagine, the United States Government owns the housing where an entire class of citizens permanently live. We are the landlords of misery. Let me be clear. I believe the government has an obligation to maintain a safety net. But these programs have failed in that mission. They have not alleviated poverty. They have not–in fact, they’ve deepened it, rather than alleviate it.
MARGARET WARNER: HUD Sec. Henry Cisneros concedes there are problems with public housing. But he argues there is still a role for the kind of streamlined housing agency he’s been trying to create out of HUD.
SEC. HENRY CISNEROS, Secretary, HUD: (April 25) Our strategy has been simple. Invest in neighborhoods, invest in housing, invest in people. Give communities the opportunity to help themselves. Give the private sector the opportunity to re-engage in urban communities. This isn’t social welfare redux.
MARGARET WARNER: Widespread public housing began in the 1930s in response to the appalling conditions in urban slums. At first, the idea seemed to work. There were long waiting lists for clean, safe apartments. But then in the late 1940s, construction of huge high-rise projects began and so did public housing’s problems. The projects were dehumanizing in scale and often isolated from the rest of the community. What’s more, changes in federal rules slowly pushed out the working poor as tenants, replacing them with the very poor, and in the worst projects with drugs and gangs as well.
Congress created HUD in 1966 to try to bring some sense to federal housing programs, but despite successive of attempts at reform, the problems did not significantly abate. Today nearly 5 million households depend on federal housing assistance. One quarter are conventional public housing. Three quarters rent private apartments with the aid of federal housing subsidies and vouchers. And the Clinton administration has proposed expanding the voucher program further. Many of HUD’s large older structures now stand as empty ghost towns, waiting for demolition.
HUD, meanwhile, has grown into a $20 billion agency, overseeing 200 different programs, from community housing projects to anti-discrimination enforcement. Sen. Dole’s proposal would end all that. He wants to abolish HUD, transfer homeless programs to the Department of Health & Human Services, turn over enforcement of fair housing laws to the Justice Department, and replace all traditional public housing assistance with vouchers which tenants could use to subsidize their rent anywhere.
SEN. BOB DOLE: Housing vouchers, in my view, would enable poor Americans to choose where they like to live just like we do. If they’ve got a voucher, they can take it to you or somebody else and you can help them.
MARGARET WARNER: To discuss Sen. Dole’s proposal, we’re joined now by HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros and by Republican Congressman Rick Lazio of New York, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity and a Dole campaign surrogate on housing issues. Mr. Secretary, respond, if you would, to the thrust of Sen. Dole’s attack.
SEC. HENRY CISNEROS, Secretary, HUD: The basic response is that his proposals are precisely what we have been trying to do for the last year and a half. We have proposed eliminating public housing as it exists and supplanting it with a system of vouchers where people can use their own judgment and choice and the discipline of the market place. Instead of funding housing authorities, funding buildings, we have proposed funding families, who can then make choices, including the choice to leave public housing.
Unfortunately, the Congress didn’t accept our plan for public housing last year, and in the intervening year has further cut the funding for the traditional voucher program where 1.2 million families live now by making it impossible for more families to use vouchers. So the Senator’s plan for housing was probably something quickly put together for a speech at the realtors and not a well thought out housing strategy, certainly not one that has the support of the Republican Congress that eliminated or, or rejected the specific proposals that he made that day.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Lazio, how do you respond to that?
REP. RICK LAZIO, (R) New York: Well, what I would say is that the Senator is rightfully frustrated with the centralized bureaucratic model that is still clinged onto by this administration. I mean, we still have situations where housing authorities are chronically mismanaged, in many cases corrupt, and money continues to flow into those same housing authorities. He’s frustrated with it. I’m frustrated with that. It’s time that we stopped throwing good money after bad and focusing on individuals.
We are doing a number of things, including giving people the ability to use vouchers for home ownership. I know Sen. Dole believes in boosting home ownership wherever possible. We are suggesting that people ought to be able to buy their public housing units, but I’ll tell you, a lot of the things that have led to the disgrace that is public housing in some of our cities throughout our country is aresult of the thirty or forty years of control in the House by the Democrats. And I think, you know, now people want to run away from that and say, well, uh, that wasn’t the case. But, in fact, the Democratic Party was a party that created the preferences, the federal preferences, which had the result of concentrating poverty in certain developments. We are in the process of repealing that and substituting local preferences in its place. We need locally driven strategies frankly. We need to stress work and, and home ownership, hope. We are getting blocked at almost every stage by the Democrats in the House and the Senate from doing the reforms that need to be done in order to make public housing a place where people can transition back to the marketplace.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. You’ve got a lot of things in there. How would you like to respond to that, Mr. Secretary?
SEC. HENRY CISNEROS: Well, really, I work close with Rick Lazio, and so my response is not a tit-for-tat Democrat-Republican response. What I’d like to say is that Rick Lazio has some very good ideas that he’s managing in a bill this very afternoon in the House, and we have worked closely with other Republicans like Sen. Bond (R-MO), and what we’ve put together is a coherent strategy that is right now at work. First of all, we’re bringing down the worst of the high-rises. You saw demolitions in the clip. Thirty thousand units, which is almost–which is vastly more in–on our watch than the previous fifteen years or so, and so we’re bringing down high-rises in Newark and Chicago and Atlanta, and, and cities across the country. Secondly, we’re taking over the worst of the public housing authorities, whole housing authorities. We are now running the Chicago Housing Authority, for example.
MARGARET WARNER: And by “we,” you mean HUD?
SEC. HENRY CISNEROS: I mean HUD. Chicago Housing Authority, we have a partnership in Detroit, a partnership in New Orleans, we’ve taken the worst housing authorities and basically said if they can’t manage, we’re going to take them over. And then we’re following a bipartisan model that the Congressman referred to. We are attempting to change the rules to encourage working families to come in, to change rent rules so working families can keep their, their money and not be discouraged from work.
MARGARET WARNER: If a teenage son takes a minimum wage job–
SEC. HENRY CISNEROS: Or any family member. What happens is people then are discouraged from work. And finally, we are strengthening leases to screen out people with criminal histories and drug records and evict people, the president signed “one strike and you’re out” provision, so I think what’s emerging really is, is, by and large, a consensus in a political year, we’ve got to sort of end up taking shots at each other, but by and large there is a consensus the present model hasn’t worked, let’s look at values like work and responsible raising of children and so forth.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, let me just ask you something though, because–
REP. RICK LAZIO: I’d like to respond to some of that–
MARGARET WARNER: I know, and I want you to respond to that, but I want you to answer this one thing for me. Sec. Cisneros says you all are working together and there’s a lot of common ground. Are you saying there isn’t any and he’s just wrong about this?
REP. RICK LAZIO: What I’m saying is that quite often–and I have the utmost respect for Henry Cisneros, I think he’s a wonderful person, very bright–but I’ll tell you this administration and this Democratic–the Democrats in the House and the Senate do not stand for change. They are trying to block all reforms that we’re trying to do over here in the House. The Secretary referred to the one for one replacement rule which, in fact, has kept us from demolishing buildings. Really, it was a Republican majority, this majority that eliminated that rule to allow for the demolition of 30,000 units out of 1.3 million units. At this very moment, we’re arguing about the Brook amendment which Democrats in Congress and this administration continue to want to keep, which is a job killer. It is a disincentive to work. There are–
MARGARET WARNER: And what is that?
REP. RICK LAZIO: That basically says that the day you go to work you–your rent increases by 30 percent because rents are tied to, to income.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get the Secretary to respond to that. What about that one point?
SEC. HENRY CISNEROS: Well, as I said, there’s a vast middle ground that we are together on. We disagree with Congressman Lazio on a provision where he would like to remove a measure, an amendment that Sen. Brook, a Republican of Massachusetts, put on housing about 20 years ago that basically says people ought to have to pay no more than 30 percent of their income. We don’t believe that it is essential to the reform of public housing that we are trying to achieve that the poorest people should end up vulnerable to the possibility that they would have to pay more than 30 percent of your income. Every expert in housing, public or private, in the country says for people of all income about 25 to 30 percent is what you ought to pay in income. The risk is if Rick Lazio takes the Brook amendment off, that some public housing authorities in a quest for funds will raise rents and will really provide a terrible impact on the very poorest folks.
REP. RICK LAZIO: Can I just respond to this? Because it’s important.
MARGARET WARNER: Actually–
REP. RICK LAZIO: The Brook amendment set rent not up to but at 30 percent, so the day you go to work if you begin to go to work, you pay more money in rent. That is a tax on work, so there’s a lot of rhetoric about inviting work and having work incentives, but, in fact, the actions do not meet the rhetoric. They are still in the Washington bureaucratic model which says from downtown Washington we’re going to impose all rules in our regulations on every city in the country, whether it’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico, whether it’s in New York City, or Chicago, and the result largely has been failure. In State Street in Chicago, there are 10,000 people with an unemployment rate that is virtually universal, and that’s a model that this administration and the Democrats in Congress continue to support. We’re seeing bring down those buildings, sell them if you must, give people the vouchers, and today on the floor, the Democrats in Congress are fighting us on it.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, all right–let’s turn to that issue because we only have a couple of minutes. Mr. Secretary, I want to hear you both on this issue. Sen. Dole has said let’s abolish all government-owned public housing, period, and do it all through vouchers. What about that idea?
SEC. HENRY CISNEROS: Last year, we proposed–
MARGARET WARNER: Do you support it?
SEC. HENRY CISNEROS: Yes. We proposed the idea that over time our proposal was seven years, we would give everyone a certificate with which they could find housing. It was rejected by the Congress last year, and so we ended up with a kind of a middle ground proposal which was to say, we’ll bring down the worst and we’ll move people. The fact of the matter is we’re doing it, and, Rick, I’m sorry that you’ve taken the posture that you have today, because he knows better. We’re bringing down 30,000 units right now. We’re taking over housing authorities, and for Rick Lazio, a good friend, to say we’re defending the, the State Street corridor on the South side of Chicago is just dead wrong. We’re the first ones after Sec. Jack Kemp and Sec. Henry Pierce had 12 years–
REP. LAZIO: It was–
MARGARET WARNER: Let him finish.
SEC. HENRY CISNEROS: –first ones in 12 years to go to the State Street corridor, take over the Chicago Housing Authority, and begin to bring down the high-rises.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Congressman.
REP. RICK LAZIO: If I can just get about 1/3 of the time that you’ve given to the Secretary, let me respond to some of these things. First of all, they continue–the Secretary continues to support and the Democrats in Congress continue to support federal rules that impose on local communities, what percentage of people, at what incomes will live in particular places. We have an objection today, for example, on the floor by the Democrats in the House that people should not have a sense of reciprocity.
We have a provision in our bill that says people coming into public housing should sign a contract which states what steps they will take to move towards self-sufficiency and move back into the market place. We are trying to create mixed income opportunities, not warehouse poor people where 99 percent of the people are unemployed, there are no role models, there are no hope, gangs control the buildings, there’s poor maintenance, and I would say to the secretary, yes, they have taken over Chicago, no, they have not made substantial improvement. Those people are still unemployed. Those buildings are still vastly under maintained, and the only reason they have actually moved into some areas of Chicago and begun to take down buildings is for two reasons. One is because the Republicans gave them the authority to do that, which Democrats never gave a Republican Housing Secretary the authority to do, number 1, and number 2, mysteriously because Chicago is going to be the home of the Democratic National Convention.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Congressman, I’m being told we have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.
SEC. HENRY CISNEROS: Thank you very much.