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Budget Cuts Mean 70,000 Fewer Housing Vouchers For The Poor

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Arthur Delaney
Arthur Delaney

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Delores Lewis became an expert on mouse traps while living in her last apartment.

"I used the sticky, I used the old-fashioned, I used the D-Con where they go in and it'll spin and close them in," she said. "I used the pellets for them to eat, I used the little beep thing you get from Home Depot and you plug it into the wall and it sends a beep into the wall to keep them from coming."

She killed lots of mice, but they kept reappearing, so she started looking for a different place to live. Then she felt the squeeze of the federal budget cuts known as sequestration. A 26-year-old mother of three, Lewis uses a government housing voucher to pay her rent. Thanks to the cutbacks, the government has less money for vouchers.

"They told me they were gonna downsize me," Lewis said.

Now the Lewis family lives in a two-bedroom apartment at Jefferson Village, a complex owned by the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Her son and older daughter, who are five and four, share a red bunk bed in one room, and Lewis sleeps with her two-year-old daughter in the other.

Lewis may have lost a bedroom to the budget battle, but she's one of the luckier ones. Nationwide, housing agencies served 70,000 fewer families in December thanks to spending reductions that took effect last year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal D.C. think tank. Last year the sequester cut nearly $1 billion from the Department of Housing and Urban Development's $18.9 billion budget for Housing Choice Vouchers, commonly known as Section 8, which support roughly 2 million families nationwide.

Local housing agencies are coping with lower funding by reducing caseloads through attrition and requiring families to pay more out of pocket. As of December, 2,000 fewer Virginia families received vouchers, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"The number of low income families struggling to keep a roof over their heads has been rising dramatically," the center's Doug Rice said, citing a recent report by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

In a new budget agreement last fall, Congress replaced some of the voucher money, but in Rice's estimate it wasn't enough to restore more than half of the lost vouchers.

Roy Priest, head of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, said his agency had $750,000 less to spend on vouchers last year out of a total operating budget of roughly $37 million. Priest said occupancy standards have always allowed two people per bedroom; budget cuts are just pushing the agency closer to the standard.

"When we were in a stronger financial position, we had households who were receiving the Housing Choice Voucher where they were really technically oversized," Priest said.

Pamela Calloway, 40, was technically oversized at the Alexandria two-bedroom apartment she lived in with her 14-year-old son. She had a dispute with a neighbor and the landlord told them both to leave.

"When I went to start looking for a place, I discovered that my voucher was no longer what it used to be," she said. "They said, 'It was the budget cut, we've been doing this because there's no money in the budget.'"

Calloway said the value of her voucher shrank from $1,400 to just under $1,200. She couldn't find a two-bedroom in Alexandria for less than that amount; in October she moved into a one-bedroom. She said it's a little bit awkward sharing the space with her son, who sleeps on a futon in the living room.

"We are bumping into each other at inappropriate times," she said.

Still, it beats not having an apartment.

"I didn't want to be homeless," said Calloway, who currently works in food service. "I'm not complaining at all. Overall everything is alright. I'm not complaining."

Lewis said that her new apartment is better than the one that was infested with mice, though she prefer not to have her five-year-old son in the same room as her daughters.

"He's getting older. He's having a lot of questions, you know? He's a boy," she said. "He needs his own space. He needs his own privacy. I have two little girls. They don't need to share a room with a boy."

Lewis said she's had a hard time getting the local housing agency to respond to her complaints about mold, mice, and people smoking weed in the hallway. The conditions, she said, exacerbate her son's breathing problems. She figures the government doesn't want to make public housing so nice that people don't want to leave.

"They're like, 'Hey, you're not going to be able to live rent-free if you don't want to go out and get a job,'" she said. "You have to take care of yourself."

Lewis hasn't followed the federal budget debate too closely. But the idea that people should do more to take care of themselves is certainly a part of what motivates the Republican push to make the government spend less and people work more. (No lawmakers specifically asked the Department of Housing and Urban Development to whack its voucher program, but the indiscriminate government-wide cuts known as sequestration took effect last year after a "super committee" of lawmakers failed to strike a better budget deal.)

For now, Lewis is waiting -- she said she'll jump back into the job market once her two-year-old starts going to preschool. Her previous job as a medical assistant, which she gave up last July, paid $14 an hour and had an irregular schedule.

"Paying for childcare on my own left me not enough money for rent, not enough money for utilities, not enough money for groceries," she said. "If I could afford it, I would be working."

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