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Tenants Groups Rallying to Preserve Limit on Rents

April 25, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ It’ll be mighty tough for Carolyn Smith to organize tenants in Connecticut if Congress removes the cap on rents in public and assisted housing. Nobody will be left to organize, she says.

``We’re concerned that we’ll just continue to see a dramatic increase of homelessness, of families, of women and children,″ said Smith, executive director of the Elm Haven Resident Council in New Haven, Conn.

Smith and tenant advocates across the country are concerned about legislation pending in the House to repeal the Brooke Amendment, a federal housing law that bases those rents on an individual’s ability to pay.

Under Brooke, public housing tenants and recipients of Section 8 federal housing assistance pay just 30 percent of their income for rent. Without the limit, they could be asked to pay more, and tenant advocates say many residents could be forced into homelessness as a result.

Public housing is owned and operated by local housing authorities, which would be free to demand more or less rent from tenants if Brooke is repealed.

Under the Section 8 program, the Department of Housing and Urban Development pays the difference between 30 percent of a person’s income and the cost of rent at a private dwelling, within reason.

Most of the people who fall under Brooke earn an average of $7,800 annually, according to HUD. Without Brooke, they either would have to dig deeper into their pockets to pay the rent or find someplace else to live.

HUD would not be able to increase its Section 8 assistance.

``Even spending 30 percent of their incomes on housing is a stretch for lots of folks,″ said Lisa Donner of ACORN, a community group. ``Being charged any more than that will put significant numbers of people in the position of not being able to afford public housing.″

The Senate approved a partial repeal of Brooke in January. A vote on the House bill proposed by Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., is expected in early May.

More than 500 community-based groups have asked President Clinton and members of Congress to oppose the Brooke repeal.

``You’d have millions of families being displaced,″ said Denise Scott, a Charlotte, N.C., tenant organizer. ``Tenants would have to come up with a lot of money to look for apartments if this law is repealed.″

But Lazio argues that Brooke must be repealed in order to change the makeup of public housing. The requirement that people pay rent based on their earnings has discouraged tenants from finding jobs and has led higher-income working people to leave public housing.

And because poor people have become concentrated in public housing that was originally intended to provide temporary homes, the law essentially limits the amount of rental income housing agencies can earn.

Housing officials have complained about cuts in their federal operating subsidies, and say attracting a mix of incomes to public housing would be one way for them to offset the shortfalls.

``Because of the rules that have been passed over the years, people see (public housing) as the housing of last resort,″ said Rosalind Brathwaite of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.

``It is (the last resort) for some,″ she said, ``but we want to mix it up a little bit more and make it like it was before.″

Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros has acknowledged problems with Brooke, but opposes a repeal. Instead, he favors ``ceiling″ rents _ where tenants wouldn’t pay above a certain level. They would not be tied to individual income.

Public housing officials say they need to make more money to offset reductions in their federal subsidies, but agree with Cisneros that Congress should retain protections for the lowest-income people.

A spokesman for Lazio said his bill contains such protections.

``This flexibility is sorely needed,″ said Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities.

HUD officials said the temporary spending authority that the federal housing department is operating under gives housing agencies room to set ceiling rents, use some capital funds for operating purposes, attract higher-income tenants and provide work-incentives. The department is pushing to make those provisions permanent.

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