March 31, 2013 

Ever since Congress failed to agree on budget actions to avoid the "sequester," naysayers have scoffed at the notion that across-the-board cuts would inflict real harm.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, accused President Barack Obama of exploiting the issue "to scare people in order to grow the size of government."

"Most of the nation will wake up Friday morning and yawn," Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican from Kansas, said after Congress failed to act.

While it's true that most Americans haven't yet been touched by the sequester cuts, that will soon change – and for some, it could be brutal. In Sacramento and other cities, poor families who depend on the federal government to help pay their rent will likely be the first to feel the pain.

The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency is bracing for a 9.4 percent cut, or the loss of $13.9 million this year. The bulk of the money goes to subsidize rents for poor families.

The magnitude of the cut means that housing subsidies that cover approximately 1,700 families in Sacramento County will be lost beginning as early as July. There is a straightforward fix that could avoid putting more than 4,800 people – all poor, and many of them children, elderly or disabled – out of their homes.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development could authorize local housing officials to reduce subsidies to landlords by a set amount, say $75 per unit. But so far HUD has refused to do so. It seems the federal bureaucrats are having difficulty determining whether they have the legal power to authorize such a common-sense accommodation.

There's another option – one that does not require federal authorization.

Local housing officials could ask landlords to voluntarily give up a portion of the subsidy they receive – that is, ask apartment owners who accept federal housing vouchers to cut rents for a period of time.

Landlords have an incentive to do so. If they refuse to cut poor tenants some slack by reducing rents, they will have to evict them. Under California law, eviction is a time-consuming and expensive process.

Neither option serves the long-term goal of reducing homelessness and expanding the supply of affordable housing for the nation's poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Statewide, some 350,000 people are on waiting lists for subsidized housing. When Sacramento opened its waiting list for housing vouchers in June, 50,000 people applied for 3,000 slots. While the subsidies are modest, over the years, landlords who participated have been able to count on steady reliable payments from their federal partner. Sequestration introduces an element of risk for landlords that is extremely detrimental to the future of subsidized housing.

The ultimate solution is for Congress to end sequestration. If that's not possible, at minimum lawmakers should give agencies like HUD the flexibility to make cuts where they will do the least harm.

Members of our local congressional delegation should make this a top priority.

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