OPINION As President George W. Bush requests more money to fight the war overseas, a stealth war is being fought here on domestic soil: the war on housing for the poor. Since the Bush administration took power, the public housing program has suffered $1 billion in cutbacks.
As a result, conditions have rapidly deteriorated in public housing developments throughout the country. Maintenance, security, and services have been slashed annually as budgets are drained with each appropriations bill. A climate of violence, fear, and despair has taken hold in the projects, where years of deferred maintenance, toxic and unsanitary conditions, and government neglect are simmering to a boiling point.
As we fought terror abroad, the Republican-led Congress created a breeding ground for terror here at home. Just ask the desperate, homeless families who refuse offers to move to the city's public housing developments for fear of their lives. Or ask the mothers of children who have been shot at in their front yards while attempting to escape the leaking sewage and toxic mold in their homes.
Yet rather than fight this terror in our own backyards, lawmakers have attacked the very programs that can provide a solution. Job training, education programs, and social services have all been casualties of the war on public housing. Agencies have been forced to make cuts in security and maintenance staff every year. In the past five years alone, the San Francisco Housing Authority has lost 250 employees, a 50 percent cut.
While military spending has continued to rise, the offensive against housing has also escalated. A full $600 million was cut from the 2006 public housing budget, funding housing authorities at only 85 percent of overall need. Layoffs and cutbacks occurred throughout the country as cities began planning for desperate measures such as disposing of properties, raising tenant fees, and increasing response time for repairs. In San Francisco, 26 housing authority staff lost their union jobs last year. As a result, vulnerable senior and disabled residents in high-crime neighborhoods saw their security services eliminated.
Last year was devastating for public housing residents, and the battle is far from over. The generals of the war on housing are out for blood, and it appears that they will not stop until the last vestiges of federally funded, low-income housing are destroyed. This was made abundantly clear recently when the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that in 2007 housing authorities will be funded at only 76 percent of the actual need. By proposing a budget that is $1 billion short, President Bush has raised the stakes in the fight to preserve our precious remaining federal housing for the poor.
Congress has a chance to increase funding when it passes a spending bill next month. Without an increase, San Francisco will face a $3.5 million shortfall. Our powerful new leadership must take a stand against these unconscionable cuts, which could starve local housing agencies to death.
The only way to avoid increased homelessness; displacement of poor families; loss of union jobs; heightened violence; and turn-of-the-century, tenementlike living conditions for San Francisco's poorest residents is for our representatives to insist on an increase in funding. Tell Congress to fight the war at home and not the one overseas by sending a letter at www.local-impact.org. *
Sara Shortt is the director of subsidized housing programs for the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco.