LEWISTON — Housing officials in Lewiston and Auburn say they are preparing for the worst — continually diminished federal funding for Section 8 vouchers under sequestration, with less help available to house families in need.
Officials started bracing for cuts last fall, imposed as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. In January, all federally funded public housing authorities were subject to 5 percent cuts. Those cuts, coupled with the continuing budget resolution to freeze spending at 2012 levels, have resulted in fewer housing vouchers available for elderly, disabled and low-income residents.
The Auburn Housing Authority will spend an estimated $2.4 million on vouchers this year; the number of available vouchers is 560, down from 590 last year.
In Lewiston, the annual Section 8 budget is about $6 million; the number of vouchers dropped from 1,140 last year to 1,050.
The result is fewer families getting assistance and longer waiting lists for housing.
In Lewiston, more than 1,000 people are waiting for housing. In Auburn, the list is the highest ever, with more than 2,000 people waiting for housing assistance.
According to a Portland Press Herald report Thursday, as many as 22 families in that city could lose rental assistance by the end of the year. It's part of a trend across the country as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has reduced Section 8 funding.
“Nationwide, this has been quite a blow, one that has taken quite a while to manifest itself,” Lewiston Housing Authority Director Jim Dowling said.
Housing officials in Lewiston and Auburn do not expect to take vouchers away from families. They are attempting to close gaps through attrition. As families turn in vouchers, those vouchers are not being reissued.
“It’s messy and it will get worse unless Congress does something to fix it,” said Richard Whiting, executive director of the Auburn Housing Authority.
When the city is not able to issue vouchers, Whiting said, and there is no turnover, the waiting list gets backed up. He said that, under the current conditions, even maintaining a list has “a certain dishonesty” because even though people are adding their names, there’s not “a snowball’s chance in hell” they’re going to get help under current funding.
The 5 percent cut under sequestration will grow to 10 percent next year, Whiting said. Because Section 8 funding is based on the previous year’s expenditures and not on current need, the funding disbursements will slowly collapse.
Whiting estimated that 10 years from now, the Auburn Housing Authority will be funded at 35 percent of current levels. Unfortunately, he said, that doesn’t mean housing needs will be reduced, and families who rely on Section 8 vouchers are nervous.
“The elderly, of all people, are the most scared,” Whiting said, and even though housing authorities work to offer the highest protection to the elderly and disabled, these are the people who are most nervous about funding cuts.
“The voucher program is a really good program,” Dowling said, “because it gives people a maximum choice in where they want to live.” Without this assistance, people often are “living with relatives, living in unsatisfactory housing, or families are paying an extraordinary proportion of their income on rent."
Dowling said housing officials are concerned because Congress has been unable to advance spending bills for domestic discretionary programs.
“Sen. (Susan) Collins fought valiantly to break through in July, but even her efforts didn’t succeed,” Dowling said, so “now what we’re looking at is a bit like last year, where we’re back to hearing about the need to raise the debt ceiling and should the sequester be extended another year.”
He added, “We’re trying to project what we might do in 2014, but right now the range of outcomes is pretty broad. We have to prepare for the worst, which would mean continued attrition from our program.”