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US congressional funding fights take toll on housing aid programs

Published 03/17/2024, 06:06 AM
Updated 03/17/2024, 06:11 AM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Spring flowers are in full bloom in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., April 2, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats in the U.S. Congress fended off some of the deepest cuts to housing and other social safety net programs sought by Republicans, but low-income Americans will nonetheless feel the brunt of reductions that were included in a new law.

Washington's efforts to address the availability of affordable dwellings for low-income families and rid aging structures of dangerous lead-paint contamination suffered funding setbacks in legislation enacted earlier this month as part of a wide-ranging government spending measure.

As soon as Sunday, congressional leaders could unveil a deal on a second batch of legislation that may include funding for important health, labor and education programs. Lawmakers face a Friday deadline to pass these measures or risk a partial government shutdown.

The bills would determine funding levels for an array of social programs, including teachers serving low-income students, reducing mortality for poor pregnant women, job training for disadvantaged youth and HIV prevention.

The funding reductions in the appropriations bills already enacted into law come as housing advocates have warned that the needs of low-income families were not being met, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic and rising housing prices.

Almost six months into the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, and Democrats, who hold a Senate majority and the White House, are still arguing about federal spending priorities amid a national debt of $34.5 trillion that is rising at a dizzying rate.

"Today, it costs in some places 40% more than it did before the pandemic to produce affordable housing," said Kevin Nowak, head of the nonprofit CHN Housing Partners, which develops affordable housing in Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh, and is a lender for those who are left out of traditional mortgage markets.

"In Cleveland, one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the country, it will be particularly harmful," Nowak added.

He was referring to the $250 million cut to the Housing and Urban Development Department's "HOME" program. House Republicans had sought a $1 billion reduction to the program that helps state and local governments produce affordable rental and owner-occupied housing.

About three-quarters of likely eligible households in the United States do not receive rental assistance, according to Sonya Acosta, a housing specialist at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Part of the reason is because applicants spend an average of nearly 2-1/2 years on wait lists because of the high demand for housing "vouchers" and limited government funding, Acosta said, citing U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data.

Cleveland's population of 361,607 is 46.6% Black and 38% white with 31.2% living in poverty, according to Census Bureau data.

U.S. House Democrats estimate this new HOME budget will support around 21,000 new or rehabilitated units nationwide, an estimated 4,185 fewer than last year.

The two political parties managed to cooperate this year on a federal housing voucher program providing around 2.3 million low-income families with rental assistance in the private market.

The $32.4 billion appropriated, $2.1 billion above last year, aims to keep pace with inflation and help very low-income veterans and youth aging out of foster care, according to officials.

"We stabilized and protected housing assistance for nearly 5 million low-income individuals and families," said Representative Rosa DeLauro, the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. "We didn't get everything that we wanted but we got most of it."

Republicans meantime won funding cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, FBI and other agencies, although not as deep as originally sought by the House.

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Spring flowers are in full bloom in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., April 2, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

House Appropriations Committee Republicans said the newly enacted package of bills "maintains housing assistance for vulnerable Americans," while achieving the first overall spending reductions in "wasteful" programs in nearly a decade.

Meanwhile, Republicans won a $130 million cut to efforts helping low-income families reduce or eradicate dangerous levels of lead paint in aging homes. That, however, was far below the more than $500 million in savings House Republicans originally had targeted.

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