By Alexandre Da Silva and Elizabeth Owens
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
Washington - Hundreds of tenants who receive federal rental assistance rallied Monday to protest program changes they claim could force up to 60,000 families out of their homes this year.
“I could be out on the street next month,” said Vern Zuehlsdorff, 65, a retired teacher and a member of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants board.
Zuehlsdorff lives in an apartment building in Seattle that once helped the elderly and ill “maintain their independence into the last days of their lives,” he said.
But because Zuehlsdorff is living on an “enhanced voucher,” which NAHT said would be eliminated through the Bush administration’s proposal, he waved a sign that read, “Don’t take my home!”
NAHT said canceling enhanced vouchers would force residents to pay about $300 more per month or lose their homes.
Department of Housing and Urban Development spokeswoman Donna White said the protesters were misinformed.
“No families will lose their vouchers,” White said. White said there is no proposed forced eviction.
In an attempt to control HUD spending for what are called Section 8 housing vouchers, Congress rewrote the formula for the rental assistance program, basing it on local rents in August 2003, plus inflation. Opponents say the formula means their vouchers will be worth less.
The protesters rallied around a large sign that gave a “Notice to Quit” to the Bush administration and HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson.
NAHT officials also asked for a meeting with Jackson, but White was not aware if one had been scheduled.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and 43 other senators signed a May 14 letter to Jackson expressing “strong concern” about how HUD is putting the changes into effect. Jackson has not responded, according to a Leahy aide.
“The Bush administration has chosen to shortchange the program, almost guaranteeing that the poorest of families will lose much-needed support and literally their homes,” Leahy said Monday in a statement.
“Congress gave HUD the resources and tools needed to fully fund all vouchers under contract. Unfortunately, the administration chose to ignore the will of Congress in an attempt to reap meager savings on the backs of our nation’s most vulnerable families,” he added.
Created in 1974 under President Nixon, the Section 8 program provides affordable housing for 2 million families, elderly and disabled people. Low-income tenants pay 30 percent of their income toward housing while local housing authorities add subsidies to give landlords reasonable rent.
The Bush administration budget recommendation falls $1.6 billion below the amount needed to cover current levels of assistance for low-income tenants, according to a NAHT press release.
Carolyn Federoff, president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 222, a nationwide union of HUD employees, said she came from Boston to support affordable housing.
“We believe that the Congress and the administration have reneged on their promise of decent, safe and sanitary housing for all Americans,” Federoff said.
Pat Coleman, 25, a Boston-based lead organizer for the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants, said some 300 people were expected to rally.
After gathering in a circle on the sidewalk fronting the HUD building, the crowd raised a wall of signs and marched toward the office, where they stopped and chanted for nearly half-an-hour. Police officers blocked the building entrance.
Buried inside the crowd stood NAHT board member Charlotte Delgado, 63, of Sacramento, Calif.
Despite being victim of three types of cancer stomach, breast and skin Delgado, a retired nurse and restaurant manager, led the rally with a commanding voice. Delgado said the number of families with Section 8 vouchers in her building declined from 103 to 23 after a for-profit company purchased it four years ago. New tenants pay market rent, she said.
“I worked all my life, paid all my taxes,” said Delgado, adjusting a pair of thick, round glasses and coughing between sentences. “I can’t go to the street.”
Marie Christopher, a Section 8 tenant for 20 years, came from her home in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where she works as a consultant for public housing advocate agencies in a neighborhood she said has improved recently.
“I don’t know how the American people put up with him,” Christopher said of Bush. “Iraq is expensive. … and we are in desperate need of funding.”
Although Christopher said she feels “very safe” about her chances of remaining in her home, which is 2 miles from Ground Zero, she came to voice her support.
“It’s not just us, not just New York,” she said. “We all have the right to live in decency. We made the area convenient, and they want us off. It’s not convenient to us.”