The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

August 21, 2013

Hundreds of local families are locked out of housing aid

Ashley Wislock and Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item

— LEWISBURG - Hundreds of local families are waiting for housing assistance, but federal funding problems mean no new applicants are receiving help.

And while congressional leaders say they are concerned about this vulnerable population, there is no indication yet how — or if — this matter is going to be solved.

The March 1 federal sequester hit the Northumberland County Housing Authority hard. The agency is out of Section 8 housing assistance funds and is using its reserve funds and some contingency funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said Executive Director Edward Christiano.

To qualify for more contingency funds, the Housing Authority cannot grant any more leases for Section 8 housing through the end of the year, meaning the 400 people on the county’s growing wait list will be waiting for awhile, Christiano said.

And while the more than 400 people currently using Section 8 vouchers in Northumberland County are safe through the end of the year, if they leave the program, the county cannot replace them with someone from the waiting list, which grows daily, Christiano said.

The Montour County Housing Authority isn’t having problems with the number of assistance vouchers available, but funding cuts have hurt the agency’s ability to run the Section 8 program, Executive Director Brett Jeffreys said.

“It’s like a double-edged sword with the funding,” he said. “It’s either a lack of funding to issue vouchers or a lack of funding to run the program.”

But like other housing authority directors, Jeffreys noted it’s a problem in every county across the state, thanks to situations like the sequester, which he said concerns him greatly.

Statewide problem

“There’s a lot of vulnerable people that need adequate housing,” he said. “And our congressional leaders, both our House and Senate members, cannot make up their minds.”

Christiano said the housing authority has reached out to local lawmakers through its national and state affiliates, but hasn’t heard back from anyone. “I’m sure they’re well aware about all the domestic programs being cut,” he said.

Rep. Tom Marino, R-10 of Cogan Station, said he knows the need for housing assistance and Section 8 availability is critical, especially with the economy still struggling

“It is unfortunate that waiting lists are nothing new to these assistance programs, as there are so many of our society’s most vulnerable citizens in need,” he said.

Last month, the Appropriations Committee, on which Marino sits, passed funding for the fiscal year 2014 Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill. This will ensure families currently served will continue to receive housing assistance as well as veterans, the disabled and the elderly, Marino said.

“As we continue to fund and operate these essential safety net programs, we must also focus on enacting pro-growth, pro-job creation legislation, to help get as many people as we can back to work and thriving,” he said.

Marino blames Obama

Marino also leveled criticism at President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, saying their focus is in the wrong place right now.

“Rather than taking a rock star bus tour to college campuses to propagate more empty promises, the president and vice president should demand that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pass the 40-plus pieces of job-creating legislation that has been setting on his desk for years that will create jobs immediately,” Marino said.

U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11 of Hazleton, remains deeply concerned about the increased hardships many families and small businesses are facing across Pennsylvania, a spokeswoman for Barletta said. On March 1, 2013, sequestration went into effect. The Senate and the president had no plan for addressing sequestration, while the House of Representatives, including Congressman Barletta, voted multiple times to resolve sequestration in a measured and responsible manner, the spokeswoman said.  

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said what’s happening with housing is “further evidence that the sequester doesn’t make sense.

“We can cut spending in a smart and strategic way while ensuring that low-income families in Union County and throughout the state have adequate housing resources,” he said.

Casey: Fix possible

A representative of Casey’s office met this summer with the Union County Housing Authority to learn of its situation. Union County has 60 families that qualify for the Section 8 housing voucher program, but can’t get help because of funding cuts from the federal sequester. There are 275 families on the county’s waiting list, some that have been on it as long as two years.

Casey said Congress has the opportunity to fix the sequester in the next month. “I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to come together to make that happen,” he said.

The senator vowed to work with local officials to support opportunities for additional funding “to lessen the impact of these challenges.”  

For now, the Montour County Housing Authority, which has a waiting list of 70 to 80 families, is “trying to do the best we can with limited amount of funding we’re receiving,” Jeffreys said.

Even beyond the end of the year, the future is uncertain for the Northumberland County Housing Authority, Christiano said, as the HUD budget still is in limbo.

“We don’t know what kind of numbers we’re looking at,” he said. “And if the sequester does not end before next year, the cuts and cutbacks will continue. It will just be additional cuts and not getting vouchers. Our numbers will keep going down.”