Over the past several weeks, thousands of evacuees from the Gulf Coast have made their way to Dallas. Many more may be joining us in Hurricane Rita's wake.
During the first week following Katrina, I was amazed at how quickly the Dallas Housing Authority managed to place people in housing. The operative rule was simple: if you had a housing voucher or public housing in New Orleans, you received it here as well. Our housing authority continues to do a great job of placing families in homes.
That's the good news.
The bad news is being overlooked.
Multi-family housing developers in Dallas have hundreds of units of rental property just waiting for families who have housing vouchers. It is clear to me that the supply currently exists in the Dallas market.
The problem is simple: the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has limited the number of persons who can participate in the program.
The units are there waiting to be leased. But not enough low-income families are allowed into the program to receive the vouchers to take advantage of the housing.
As a result, families are forced to live in sub-standard housing while waiting for their names to creep forward on a local waiting list that currently contains well over 10,000 names.
In essence, our new neighbors from New Orleans went to the head of this line, as they should have. At the same time, people already in Dallas will now have to wait longer for housing improvement.
Alfonzo Jackson, formerly the CEO of the Dallas Housing Authority, serves as Secretary for HUD. Thanks to his executive orders and to administration policy, the housing voucher program has been frozen and plans for the FY2006 budget envision further cutbacks.
Families who possess a housing voucher make rental payments equal to 30% of their income and HUD reimburses property owners the balance. The program allows participants to live anywhere in the community where owners accept vouchers as payment. This approach decentralizes publicly assisted housing while undermining the concentration of poverty that destroys communities.
At the same time, the voucher program encourages the development of much-needed, affordable, workforce housing. In short, the program is a boon to developers both for-profit and non-profit.
Without the voucher program it is unrealistic to expect developers to continue to produce affordable housing. The poor cannot afford the rents that are required due to production costs. Real estate developers do not build housing to lose money.
When housing vouchers are cut back, everyone loses. The program is a great blend of social uplift opportunity that is tied to employment and economic development that harnesses market forces to improve neighborhoods and lives.
Housing, like health care, education and employment, is a major determinant of the overall quality of life for people. Poor, substandard housing stock diminishes health, affects educational outcomes and derails economic development. Every dollar invested in community housing is a dollar whose continued circulation improves everything.
FEMA now estimates--and this before Rita hits--that 200,000 former Gulf Coast residents are in need of housing. The number is likely much higher and will only rise following the next storm.
Trailers--thousands of manufactured housing units to be placed in gigantic campuses. Now, there is a plan. Wouldn't you love to live in that sort of a neighborhood?
I read recently that there are 1.1 million apartment units across the South that are available for rent today. I expect that is why the U. S. Senate voted week before last to authorize an emergency expansion of the voucher program for families affected by Katrina. Good move.
Now our national leaders need to direct Mr. Jackson to rethink his policy about opening the voucher program in cities like Dallas to people who have been caught up in a different sort of storm for over two decades.
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