Running on empty

Once the federal budget is approved this fall, expect Mel Martinez, the former Orange County chairman plucked from obscurity to head the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last year, to boast of what a great job his agency is doing. Rumored to want to run for Florida governor in 2006, the 55-year-old attorney will stress his success in getting a 7 percent increase in the HUD budget. Reporters will quote him praising the 34,000 additional subsidized vouchers for low-income people seeking apartments. He'll talk about HUD's mission to increase home ownership for poorer folks.

But what Martinez will leave out is how next year's HUD budget will hurt the extremely poor, including many disabled and older people. The budget has no dollars for new public-housing construction, and $400 million has been cut that would have paid for maintenance and upkeep of existing public housing.

And that 7 percent increase? In fact, it's no increase at all. Once inflation is accounted for, HUD's proposed $31.5 billion budget is exactly the same as last year's $29.4 billion budget.

"For HUD to claim it is providing any more real aid as a result of this budget is false," says Barbara Sard, director of housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

The one exception is the 34,000 Section 8 rent-subsidy vouchers. They have been praised because they disperse poverty, allowing low-income people to rent apartments in different areas of a city rather than just in public-housing projects. But affordable-housing advocates point out that the vouchers are not a cure-all for housing shortages. They have a stigma attached to them, and those who use them can face possible discrimination. "Typically, Section 8 housing is in highly segregated areas that frequently is not the best housing," says Gideon Anders, executive director of the National Housing Law Project.

Section 8 also fails to provide for larger families, which require four- or five-bedroom apartments -- the kind of quarters traditional public housing can provide. And by allocating 34,000 new vouchers, Martinez has only nicked the housing shortage problem. A report released by the Millennial Housing Commission last month emphasized the affordable-housing gap: There are 8.5 million extremely low-income renters in America, but only 6.7 million apartments for them.

Instead of making public housing a priority, however, Martinez has chosen to focus on home ownership, especially for blacks and Hispanics, who lag behind whites in ownership rates. The issue, however, does more for Martinez and the Republicans than it does for low-income people. It is no coincidence that Martinez, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, spoke at a National Association of Home Builders conference several weeks ago. The association, whose members will benefit from HUD construction, gave $1.12 million in campaign contributions last year, mainly to GOP candidates.

Conversely, only a small percentage of low-income people will be able to buy a home, even with federal assistance. And, even if they do get lucky, there's the thorny issue of whether they'll be able to maintain the home without further financial assistance.

"Home ownership is sexy," says Sheila Crowley, president of the Low Income Housing Coalition. "It's easier to sell. There's a much better political bonus doing home ownership." But, she notes, the vast majority of the people her group represents wouldn't qualify because they're "barely holding on."

Crowley says Martinez isn't the weak link in HUD's strategy. He has been encumbered, she says, by the rest of the Bush administration. No wonder then that rumors have circulated that he'll be moved to a more influential Cabinet position before running for Florida governor.

"Mr. Martinez is very capable of showing sincere empathy for those in need of housing," Crowley says. "However, he has no power in this administration to make a difference."

The budget news isn't yet dire for the Orlando Housing Authority, the largest recipient of HUD dollars in Central Florida. The agency, which manages 1,700 apartments and 2,400 vouchers, will likely receive a slight increase from the $19.6 million it received from HUD last year for public housing and Section 8 vouchers, according to Vivian Bryant, OHA's executive director. It might be enough to keep up with inflation.

But with the Bush administration's myopia on affordable housing, don't be surprised if Martinez is welcomed back to Orlando in 2006 by a flood of poor people with no place to call home.