July/August 1997

Shelter Shorts

Senate Takes Aim at Income Targeting

Eager to get started on summer recess, the Senate tabled discussion on the Public Housing Reform and Responsibility Act of 1997 (S.462) until September. Awaiting Senators is a series of disputes, which threaten the bill's passage altogether.

The most prominent issue of debate concerns "income targeting," reserving spaces in public housing for residents with the greatest need. The current law targets households whose income does not exceed 50 percent of the area median income for eligibility for a majority of public housing units and Section 8 vouchers and certificates. The Senate committee has vowed to lower that threshold and reduce the number of units held to that standard.

Housing Authorities have led the fight for relaxed targeting, saying that the admission of higher income residents will make up for lower operating subsidies. A coalition of tenant advocacy groups, led by the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Center for Community Change, is opposed to legislation which gives federal housing resources to higher income households, especially considering the relatively limited availability of such housing for low income households. At press time, the Senate committee had reportedly reached a compromise on income targeting, which would slightly lower Public Housing targeting in exchange for an increase in Section 8 targeting, but no details were available.

Another notable sticking point raises privacy issues for all residents of federally subsidized housing. Democrats and Republicans alike have vowed to block a floor vote on the bill unless they reach agreement on Senator Rod Grams' (R-MN) insistence that the bill include language allowing public housing authorities to require chemical dependency treatment records of applicants, despite challenges that such a measure violates the Fair Housing Act and a federal law keeping such records confidential.

If the Senate approves the bill in September, it will need to be worked over in committee since it is substantially different from the House bill (HR 2) passed earlier this year.

Workfare Recipients Struggle for Rights

Under pressure from Workfare recipients and their advocates, the White House and the Department of Labor announced on May 15th that Workfare workers should be compensated at the federal minimum wage and protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act and other worker protections. Workfare jobs are the unpaid public service jobs that welfare recipients are required to take in order to keep their benefits. Immediately following the announcement, the House of Representatives began formulating legislation to undo the provision by making Workfare workers not employees in any legal sense.

Many groups, including the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Center for Community Change (CCC), National Employment Law Project (NELP), and the Coalition for Human Needs have been leading a fight to win fair treatment for Workfare workers. Unions too, especially the AFL-CIO and AFSCME, have joined in lobbying the Administration and Congress. Actions have included two national call-in days organized by CCC and NELP. In March, ACORN organized a public meeting with Clinton's National Economic Council Director, Gene Spurling. Over 500 people, including over 200 Workfare workers, attended the meeting, and many participated in a subsequent march on the Department of Health and Human Services. Protesters wore orange vests – the uniform of Workfare workers – and carried brooms and signs with such slogans as "Work with No Rights" and "No Pay Equals Slavery."

ACORN, along with some AFSCME locals, is also organizing Workfare workers union-style, especially in New York City, focusing on basic health and safety protections, grievance procedures, and the displacement of recipients from school or job training programs into unskilled Workfare jobs.

Chicago Public Housing Residents Demand "Contract"

Chicago public housing residents recently marched downtown and rallied in Grant Park to pose a question that marcher Lolita Wright put succinctly: "I want to know where they're going to put everybody."

Marchers from many Chicago developments marked the formation of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing on June 19, Juneteenth Day, which commemorates the day slaves learned of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. Allies of public housing tenants such as Section 8 tenants, unions, and community organizations joined marchers, bringing the event's turn out to 1,500 people.

Marchers visited the Chicago Housing Authority, the regional office of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and City Hall to call for a "contract" between public housing residents and government that included three points: choices of different types of housing, such as scattered site, Section 8, and others, for residents displaced due to building demolition; guarantees of decent treatment for public housing residents; and accountability of decision makers to tenants.

Dozens of people – from public housing advocate Bertha Gilkey of St. Louis to a local representative of the Campaign for Human Development to a rap group, Tha' proj, made up of former residents of the Rockwell Gardens complex – spoke at the rally. The CHD representative announced a two-year, $90,000 grant to the coalition.

"We are being told 'you go here' and 'you go there,'" Carol Steele of the coalition said. "That's not the way we should or will be treated. We've mobilized people to...fight for what they want, which is a seat at the table and the right to stay in our homes."

– Gordon Mayer, National Training and Information Center, 312-243-3035

Short Takes

Rental Housing Trust Fund Victory: Thanks in large part to a campaign by the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance (AHHA) of Hawaii, Hawaii's Rental Housing Trust Fund (RHTF) will receive $20 million in General Obligation bonds from the state over the next two years. AHHA's campaign brought together low-income renters, unions, public housing tenants, and families living in shelters, among others, to educate the public about the potential benefits of such funding. The RHTF, established in 1992, is funded with public dollars, raised largely through a conveyance tax and transfers of funds from the state's Rental Assistance Revolving Fund. In its first three years the RHTF awarded $20 million toward the development of 1,086 rental apartments and houses for low-income people, including the elderly or those with mental illnesses. Info: Kathi Hasegawa, AHHA, 810 N. Vineyard Blvd., Honolulu, HI 96817; 808-845-4565.

Fighting Branch Closures: A campaign by three grassroots organizations, led by Inner City Press/Community on the Move of New York City, has led the Federal Reserve to impose an unprecedented requirement on NationsBank in its acquisition of Boatman's Bancshares. Activist groups in New Mexico and Tennessee were concerned that branches of Boatman's which served their communities would be closed as a result of the merger. The Federal Reserve, upon approving the merger, issued a landmark requirement that during the next two years NationsBank must inform the Reserve of its bank closings. Info: National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC), 202-628-8866.

Too many branches? While many commercial banks have complained that technology changes and competitive factors force them to reduce the number of branches, especially in low-income communities, their number is actually increasing overall, while the number of banks tied to those branches has declined significantly. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., in 1986 there were 14,200 commercial banks with 58,211 offices. In 1996, those numbers changed to only 9,500 banks with 66,700 offices.

Hispanic Housing Discrimination in Las Cruces, NM: First National Bank of Donna Ana County agreed to a $585,000 settlement for allegedly discriminating against Hispanic mobile homebuyers in the area of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The first Department of Justice (DOJ) case solely involving Hispanics stated that the bank allegedly approved white loan applicants while rejecting Hispanic applicants with similar credit histories. White applicants were offered more opportunities to explain past credit problems and outside income sources according to DOJ. Info: NCRC, 202-628-8866.

And in St. Louis: The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), concerned about a decline in lending to blacks by Mercantile Bank in St. Louis, sent white and black applicants with equal credit problems to the bank to test loan officers' responses. The white applicants were coached on how to improve their credit standing, while the black applicant was steered toward a less desirable FHA loan. ACORN has demanded that regulators strip Mercantile of its "outstanding" CRA rating, and has referred a fair housing violation to HUD.

Tenant Victory in Seattle: When a landlord in Seattle decided to withdraw from the Section 8 certificate and voucher program, all certificate and voucher holders in the building were served eviction notices. One tenant challenged the eviction in Federal District Court, and won, when the court determined that the landlord's decision to suspend participation in the program would have a disparate impact on African-Americans, women, and families with children, and would thus violate the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act. The tenant was able to show that of the 22 families living in the apartment complex with Section 8, all were headed by women, all had children, and all but four were African-American, and thus the burden of the evictions would fall almost exclusively on protected classes.

Too Much Democracy in Charlotte: Voter empowerment isn't a bad thing in and of itself, unless the empowered voters might oppose you, Charlotte, North Carolina City Council Member Don Reid seems to be thinking. Reid has accused the Charlotte Housing Authority of overstepping their bounds by encouraging public housing residents to vote. Not surprisingly, the conservative Council Member has been critical of the Housing Authority's spending habits and management in the past. HUD guidelines say that the Housing Authority is permitted to engage in the effort and even to use federal subsidies for the drive, provided that the registration drives are non-partisan.

HMDA Shows High Black Denial Rate: The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council, a coordinating body for five federal regulatory agencies, has released data on 1996 lending patterns, and the results are disturbing. The report, based upon a sample of 14.8 million home-loan applications from 9,300 lending institutions found that applications for home purchase loans received from blacks were denied 48.8 percent of the time, compared with 24.1 percent for those from white applicants. Hispanic applicants were turned down 34.4 percent of the time, Asians 13.8 percent, and American Indians 50.2 percent. The trends persist, even when income levels are taken into account. The bankers' response to the report? The pattern is a result of lenders reaching out more to minority applicants.

Racial Violence in SF Public Housing: An integration effort with little forethought has led to violence in San Francisco public housing, the Associated Press reported. Vietnamese families who moved into the predominantly African American development a few years ago were met with beatings, shootings, and in 1992, the murder of a young boy. The PHA responded by finding homes for the Asian families elsewhere but has come under fire for not providing services to help the families overcome the obstacles they faced upon moving into the project. Residents have expressed fear that a lack of such efforts means that future integration efforts will be just as unplanned, and just as violent. (Read a letter about this item.)
Copyright 1997
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