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Sequester imperils housing, vouchers

Local agency waiting to learn how much

The federal sequester has not yet directly affected Fort Wayne residents dependent on public housing, but officials fear it could have a long-term impact on the agency providing it.

Fort Wayne Housing Authority Executive Director Maynard Scales said that, so far, the cuts in federal spending have only been to the amount the agency gets for running public housing complexes and the administration fees for running the Housing Choice Voucher program, formerly known as Section 8.

But previous cuts and federal demands that cash reserves be used have put the agency in a precarious position, Scales said, and officials still don’t know what further cuts the sequestration might bring.

“There are some pretty big gaps in our funding,” Scales said. “We’re trying to stretch our dollars.”

The two biggest programs the agency runs are public housing and housing choice vouchers. On the public housing side, which rents apartments to those who cannot afford housing, the federal government is now paying about 80 percent of what it used to. The Fort Wayne Housing Authority operates about 1,000 rental units around the city.

Cuts in 2011 and 2012 in that program have already forced staff reductions and deferred maintenance, he said, but officials fear that putting off repairs and a lack of cash reserves could create a crisis the agency won’t have money to fix.

“That’s where we find ourselves concerned about the long-term future,” Scales said.

As for housing choice vouchers, which gives low-income people vouchers they can use to pay rent at privately owned apartments, the voucher funding has not been cut, Scales said, but the fees the agency gets to run the program are now about 64 percent of what they were.

The agency pays for about $1.3 million worth of vouchers a month and has about $700,000 in cash reserves, he said.

The agency used to have nine employees for the voucher program but is losing two to attrition. The program loses 20 to 25 families a month, and officials are slowing the rate at which they’re replaced in case funding is cut and the Housing Authority cannot pay for all the vouchers it has issued. Officials have also made plans for how vouchers will be cut, if necessary. For example, single-person households without children would be cut before those with children, Scales said.

Melissa Quirk, a senior policy analyst at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington group that pushes for more affordable housing, said the continuing resolution passed by Congress has finally set funding rates for 2013 – halfway through the federal fiscal year – and the U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency is calculating how much it will be able to spend on those programs.

Quirk said there have been estimates that voucher funding will be cut 5 percent to 10 percent, which could leave 140,000 households nationwide without affordable housing. A 10 percent cut in Fort Wayne’s program would leave 300 households without vouchers.

“We are expecting this will mean that public housing authorities will end up reducing the number of households they serve because there won’t be sufficient funding for all the vouchers currently in use,” Quirk said. “This level of cut means that housing authorities are not going to serve the same number of people.”

Sequestration is $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts imposed by Congress because its members could not agree on federal budgets. Quirk said that previously, Congress has always made cuts so that they hurt the agencies, not the people they serve.

“In the past, Congress has always tried to protect those households,” she said. “This is the difference between a targeted cut and an across-the-board cut.”