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Valentine's Message: Home Is Where the Heart Is

This Valentine’s Day, tenant leaders representing millions of low-income families—some of whom face the prospect of homelessness due to draconian cuts proposed by the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee—are engaging in direct actions and demonstrations in 19 cities across the nation.

The demand issued to Congress through the “Have a Heart, Save Our Homes” campaign  is simple: oppose these cuts—including over 20 percent for Housing and Urban Development programs aiding the poor over the next seven months—and support full funding for Section 8, public housing and other home-assistance programs.

Here are some of the Republican’s proposed cuts, according to the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT) leading the campaign: $1.6 billion cut to public housing below the FY 2010 level; $1.47 billion cut to Section 8 vouchers below the President’s request for FY 2011; $2.9 billion cut—2/3 of the overall program—to Community Development Block Grants , which help cities address affordable housing, job training, domestic violence, and other anti-poverty needs;  and $760 million—2/3 cut—to housing for the elderly and disabled.

“Congress needs to stop this war on the poor,” said Michael Kane, executive director of NAHT. “If you look at the Bohener cuts, almost all of the big program cuts are on programs that serve poor people. And some of the deepest cuts are at HUD, affecting low-income tenants.”

Indeed five million American households receive HUD assistance to rent their homes. These are very low-income Americans, and the overwhelming majority are seniors, disabled people and single parents with children. Many are disabled veterans  or formerly homeless people. Section 8 tenants pay 30% of their income on rent, with the federal government paying the rest to landlords. 1.1 million families live in public housing owned by city housing agencies and would be homeless without HUD rental assistance.

“The public housing buildings are literally falling down because they were starved for eight years during the Bush era, and housing authorities around the country are tearing them down because they’re no longer habitable,” said Kane. “They need something like $20-$30 billion just to sustain these buildings, but instead of appropriating more money, they’re pulling the plug on them. People are being made homeless by the destruction—it’s happening steadily across the country and it will accelerate with these cuts.”

Among its recommendations, NAHT urges Congress to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction on second homes. The interest deduction for these homeowners exceeds $104 billion in FY 2011, more than enough to address these proposed cuts. (It’s worth noting that Obama’s budget plan doesn’t touch this deduction either.)

“It is unacceptable for Congress to kick elderly people, people with disabilities, and children out of their homes while wealthy people can take tax deductions on their vacation homes,” said Jackie Philyaw, a Boston working mother of two in Section 8 housing, and a board member of NAHT.

Some of the cites where tenant-led actions will occur today include: Portland, Maine, where tenants will march to the office of Senator Susan Collins, the Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee dealing with HUD; Dallas, where a particularly “coldhearted” Congressperson will receive a Valentine’s Day message to “Have a Heart” and support full-funding for HUD programs; Boston, where a dozen tenants organizations that have been seeking a meeting with Senator Scott Brown will rally at City Hall and then deliver a “Don’t Break Our Hearts Again” message to him at the JFK Federal Building; Houma, Louisiana, where tenants will rally along the Interstate Highway to send a message to Senator David Vitter; New Orleans, where tenants will call on legislators to fully fund—not destroy—public housing; Staten Island, where tenants will visit the office of newly elected Republican Representative Michael Grimm and urge him to break ranks with the House majority and support tenants in his own district; Chattanooga, where tenants will gather at a local community center to learn about the cuts and urge Republican Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander to “Have a Heart, Save Our Homes”; Rancho Cordova, California, where tenants from the Rancho 44 Tenant Association will deliver letters to Republican Representative Dan Lungren; and  Washington, DC, where tenants mobilized by Empower DC, One DC , and homeless advocates will demonstrate at the Russell Senate Office Building and deliver Valentine’s cards to key Senators telling stories of how families will be harmed by proposed cuts.

In his State of the Union address President Obama said, “I’m willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without. But let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.”

This Valentine’s Day marks a defining moment for this nation: will we insist that those among us carrying the heaviest load are able to lead lives of dignity and security? Or will we add to their burden, demeaning our nation’s best values?

Katrina vanden Heuvel

The Nation

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