Spot News: Housing Forum Urges Community Leaders to Lobby Congress

The attendees of the forum pay close attention to Douglas Rice.
The attendees of housing forum pay close attention to Douglas Rice.

With the final version of President Obama’s 2011 budget still pending, leaders in the Philadelphia community met yesterday to discuss the local implications of proposed budget cuts to housing and homelessness programs.

Located at 1515 Fairmount Ave., the forum was a collaboration of The People’s Emergency Center, the Philadelphia Office of Supportive Housing and Project H.O.M.E. It included a presentation from Douglas Rice, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, on the current economic challenges facing housing and low-income programs.

“[In the 2011 budget] we are seeing some of the biggest threats to housing and homelessness programs since 1995, 1996,” Rice said.

The House proposal for 2011 will cut HUD funding by $5.4 billion or 12 percent below the 2010 level. Public Housing will lose $1.6 billion in funding. And Community Development Block Grants, funds allocated for anything ranging from homelessness programs to sewage systems, will suffer a 66 percent loss in funding.

“Block grants have a big strength and a big weakness. The big strength is they’re flexible. That’s why communities love them. Communities get the money from the federal government and they sit down and decide how they want to spend it,” Rice said. “But the reporting related to the block grant spending does not translate into outcomes or any kind of coherent narrative that can be easily conveyed to members of congress to explain to them why that spending was so useful.”

Douglas Rice, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, gets ready for his presentation.

Rice went on to explain that these drastic budget cuts will not only effect the 2011 budget but future budgets as well. He attributed the major cuts to pressure from Republicans and moderate Democrats that want to focus on lowering the deficit. Ironically, one of the largest factors projected to contribute to the deficit is the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts that President Obama renewed for another two years back in December. The other factor is the growing cost of health care and the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Despite popular belief, Rice argued that Social Security will play a fairly insignificant role in driving the deficit compared to the cost of health care. The House proposal focuses its cutbacks on non-security discretionary programs–which Rice said only take up 15 percent of the budget while Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid take up 41 percent.

“So what is to be done? This is a big question,” Rice said. “It is extremely important to explain to members of Congress what [housing and homelessness programs] really do, why they’re critical on the ground, who they effect in your communities [and] what the effect is–really demonstrate the value. It’s going to be an all out war in Congress, over the coming years, between programs. And it’s going to be incumbent on the stakeholders in every program to demonstrate the critical value that’s provided in every dollar of federal expenditures.”

Graph shows deficit spending could be cut nearly in half without the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts.

Though Rice presented forum attendees with the bleak reality of the situation, Elizabeth Hersh, executive director of The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, encouraged the leaders at the forum with a story of Governor Corbett being swayed by public outcry.

“I really believe that if we walk out of this room immobilized and overwhelmed and feeling like there’s nothing that we can do, this situation will continue to be the reality,” Hersh said. “And so I feel like part of my job is to help us, as leaders in the community and advocates, come out feeling some sense of hope and power that we can alter the course of what’s going on–that we already have and that we can.”

Elizabeth Hersh chats with a fellow housing advocate.

The people in the audience, though primarily employed in the housing field, seemed to walk away with a fairly positive attitude about the information Rice and Hersh shared.

“I got the real picture of what the budget consists of and the deficits that effect the programs that I’m a part of and that will effect my clients,” said Eudora Burton, a housing specialist at the National Nursing Centers Consortium dealing in the housing issues of single first time mothers. “Also, I really understood how important it is that when we’re writing for funding or assistance for providing services to our clients that we need to really come up with good outcomes–share the need and the direct effect the budget cuts will have.”

Trish Downey, the manager of external communications for PEC, said, “What I really got out of this conference was that people do move. People can change their minds. And there’s a lot of people that seem like they’re going one way or the other but they’re really on the fence. And that’s what we need to work on and target when it comes to advocacy approaches.”

The forum concluded with a discussion on access to permanent housing for homeless people in Philadelphia.






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