Saturday, June 2, 2007

If a house falls in Skid Row, does it make a sound?

Recently the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced the “winners” of this year’s McKinney homeless assistance funding. Los Angeles was one of the big losers.

Because of a bureaucratic accounting dispute between HUD and the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, $13 million in Shelter Plus Care supportive housing grants were denied to that community. This, in spite of the fact that Los Angeles has the largest homeless population in the country.

This denial of funds means the loss of permanent housing options for 250 households.

If LA City had lost $13 million in federal funding for policing
Skid Row, the Mayor’s office and our federal representatives would be all over it! The business community and developers would be shouting from the top of City Hall's tower and in every media outlet in town. There would be no worry about political fallout. There would be only righteous indignation that "public safety" was being jeopardized by bureaucrats in Washington, DC.

But where is the political pressure, where is the righteous indignation when it comes to the housing needs of LA's poorest people?

Attempts by community groups to get the Mayor and most of our federal representatives on record against this calamity have proven futile. The only elected officials who responded to the crisis were the City Council who unfortunately have no effective power to influence this situation in the long term. Councilmember Jan Perry understood the impact on her constituents and directed the Housing Authority to transfer alternative resources to the underfunded projects. So again, local government was forced to rob Peter to pay Paul.

No other voices were heard. Only an unnatural silence. Federal political bureaucrats arbitrarily take affordable housing money away from a community that far and away has the largest number of homeless people in the country, and neither the Mayor nor most LA representatives in Congress speak up. Why?

Mayors are in a bind. They depend on the federal government for all sorts of funding, from infrastructure to environment to policing. The housing needs for the country’s poorest people through HUD’s annual McKinney Act allocations is but a small piece of the overall pie. To kick up a ruckus over this cut in homeless funding could, and probably would, put at risk all the other federal money a Mayor requests and needs. This deplorable reality is well understood by every local official who works on issues that rely in whole or in part on federal funding.

But the story is different for our federal representatives. They do not depend on federal funding. They do not depend on HUD. Quite the reverse – they control HUD's pursestrings. The problem is that our federal representatives inevitably follow the Mayor’s lead: If the Mayor says it’s an issue, then it’s an issue. If the Mayor says it ain’t, well then, it ain’t.

When local groups asked their federal elected officials to fight for reinstatement of the $13 million cut, they heard the same refrain: "What does the Mayor think?" When local groups followed up with the Mayor, they were told it would be taken care of… next year.

This explains why local communities continue to see their federal
affordable housing programs decimated with hardly a peep about it in Washington, DC. The situation is not unique to Los Angeles.

Mayors don't do anything out of fear of biting the hand that feeds them, and federal representatives don't say much as they seem to feel they work for the Mayors rather than the people who elected them and sent them to DC.

Our representatives in Congress are elected by us. They need to hear us, and then they need to deal with federal agencies to ensure that these agencies are accountable and humane to the people in their communities, and that includes homeless people.

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