A federal decision to freeze rent assistance may affect several Maine families.

PORTLAND (AP) – Public housing authorities in Maine are trying to gauge the impact of a federal decision to freeze rent assistance money at last year’s levels.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says the cost of maintaining the Housing Choice Voucher Program – formerly known as Section 8 – has gotten out of hand.

An estimated 12,000 low-income families across Maine depend on housing vouchers. But the cap on funding at August 2003 levels, plus a small increase for inflation, is likely to mean that fewer families will be able to get help.

Under the program, qualified individuals or families pay 30 percent of their monthly incomes toward rent and receive vouchers for the difference.

The vouchers, honored by landlords who choose to take part in the program, are issued by public housing authorities.

Last year, the Maine State Housing Authority alone distributed about $19 million in housing subsidies to about 4,000 people. The average annual income of people in the program is about $8,700.

“The options seem to be, either you can reduce the number of families you’re serving or you could keep the same number of families but reduce the rental assistance amount for each one,” said Dan Simpson, spokesman for the Maine State Housing Authority.

The Portland Housing Authority has elected to freeze its voucher program. Executive director Peter Howe says he estimates the authority will lose between 65 and 75 vouchers under the new guidelines.

The authority issues $14 million in housing subsidies to about 1,750 people a year.

Howe says it is unlikely the Portland Housing Authority will have to drop families from the program. Instead, as people go off the program, the authority will not issue new vouchers.

Most housing authority officials agree that people on waiting lists for vouchers are out of luck. Mary Ann Gleason, director of the York County Initiative to End Homelessness, says it is estimated that 10,000 qualified people across the state are waiting for vouchers.

“The greatest impact we’re already seeing is the huge numbers of families that are being turned away because we can’t serve them,” she said.

Donna White, a HUD spokeswoman, said the per-voucher cost has risen 23 percent in the past two years.

“If the voucher program continues to grow at the levels it’s growing, it will be unsustainable,” said od she said. “It’s not HUD’s intent to see families on the street.”

AP-ES-05-10-04 0217EDT

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