As feds freeze funding, OP cuts Section 8 apartments

? Housing Authority seeks $150,000 in local funds to keep low-income apartments available.

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

Due to a freeze on federal funding, the Oak Park Housing Authority has reduced the number of rent subsidized apartments in Oak Park and may need to make further cuts if outside funding sources are not found to bridge an expected $150,000 budget shortfall this year.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program, formerly known as Section 8, assists local housing authorities in financially supporting families who can't afford to pay full rent costs. Oak Park has had 427 vouchers. Through attrition, the agency has already reduced the number of subsidized apartments to 413, and Ed Solan, executive director of the agency, says attrition may not be enough if it becomes necessary to reduce the number of vouchers to below 400.

In the past, as families left the voucher program in Oak Park, the agency selected another low income family from its 2,000 family waiting list. Now, when families leave the program they are not replaced, said Solan. If additional funding is not secured, the organization is facing the possibility it will have to scale back support of residents already enrolled in the program.

The federal government has frozen its support of Housing Choice Voucher programs nationwide at 2004 levels.

"We're hoping we can avoid terminating families currently in the program through natural attrition. Our concern is that that may not be possible," Solan said.

To cope with the expected shortfall, the Housing Authority has stopped reissuing vouchers to families on a waiting list when residents voluntarily leave the program. That measure allowed the organization to reduce the number of vouchers it supports to 413, without removing residents from the program.

However, Solan estimates the number of vouchers will eventually have to dip below 400. Just how far below, he said, depends on how much support the Housing Authority receives from other sources.

The Community Foundation has already pledged $10,000, and Solan said he's sent letters seeking help from a number of local organizations.

What happens to residents if they no longer can receive vouchers varies significantly based on individual circumstances, Solan said.

"We try to work with those families, and try to counsel families. A lot depends on a particular family situation," he said, including how much rent a family can afford to pay.

"Most rent options are not great. Many may have to move in with other family. Homelessness is a possibility," he said.

Residents enrolled in the voucher program pay a portion of their own income?#34;typically 30 percent?#34;toward rent costs. Voucher holders' minimum payment was set at $25, but has been raised to $50, Solan said.

Due to job loss, housing authorities across the country have had to pay a higher percentage of rents.

If Oak Park has to reduce support of the voucher program, it is unlikely that residents can easily relocate to other communities, Solan said.

"Most housing authorities are going to be in the same position. Most have fairly lengthy waiting lists," he said, adding that Oak Park residents are not going to get priority in other communities.

John Lukehart, an Oak Park resident and senior associate with the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, said this is an issue facing communities nationwide. Cuts initiated by the Bush administration have already led to a loss of 10,000 vouchers in Illinois alone, he said.

"It's a political fight at a national level to sustain support of local housing vouchers," he said. "Nobody has had a waiting list open for some time."

Last year, Oak Park opened up its waiting list to applications. The Housing Authority received requests from 47,000 families, Solan said.

Lukehart said recent Bush administration policies have also threatened the ability of residents to move to more affluent communities.

"You're supposed to be able to use vouchers anywhere. This has affected the ability of [voucher holders] to move to areas of greater economic opportunity," he said.

His organization has hopes that pending state legislation may raise money to help support  voucher programs.

Locally, the Housing Authority has already approached the village for financial assistance. Deputy Village Manager Rogene Hill said staff is looking into the matter and will later report to the village board.

"We're going to see where there might be any money, but it might be very difficult. It's a very tight budget year," she said.

It is possible the Housing Authority could apply for Community Development Block Grant funding, she said, but the village is also expecting to see the federal government scale back support of that program as well.
CONTACT: kgrayson@wjinc.com

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