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Los Angeles Daily News

Friday March 22, 2013

Federal Sequester Hits Home for Many of L.A.'s Poor

By Christina Villacorte

Tens of thousands of Los Angeles County's low-income renters could see a loss in their housing subsidy because of the federal sequester, leading to higher rent payments and a spike in homelessness, according to local officials.

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City and county officials are in Washington D.C. this week lobbying to try to soften the blow of the cuts, pushing for permission to increase rents so they don't have to throw most recipients off the program altogether.

"This is absolutely going to hurt the most vulnerable people in LA county," said Sean Rogan, who heads the L.A. County housing authority, HACoLA.

Among those most vulnerable are people like Sylvia Juarez, a 39-year-old single mother of six, who has been on Section 8 housing subsidies for a year, receiving $1,825 in assistance for a three-bedroom Panorama City apartment after escaping an abusive relationship.

Juarez can work only part-time as a hairdresser because her two youngest children have health problems, but she found out last week that she would have to pay $100 more in rent each month, doubling the amount she pays out of her own pocket.

"With six kids, that would definitely make a big impact," she said while seeking help at the emergency food bank at MEND-Meet Each Need with Dignity, in Pacoima.

"It's going to be a struggle but I need the housing, so I have to figure out a way to get that money," she added. "I have no choice."

Rogan and Douglas Guthrie, who heads the city authority, HACLA, are meeting with federal housing officials and members of Congress this week.

"(The sequester) brings funding for public housing and Section 8 programs down to the lowest level in their history," Guthrie pointed out.

"Los Angeles has the largest homeless population in the U.S.," he added. "We've put a lot of resources into addressing that, and made progress, but much of it will be lost because of these enormous cuts."

He said the sequester slashed funding for HACoLA's Section 8 program by about $15 million this year.

It has already prevented him from issuing 300 vouchers that would have provided poor families and individuals with an average of $890 in rent money each month.

In October, Rogan said, he may also be forced to terminate vouchers held by 500 to 1,800 households.

Trying to prevent that, he met repeatedly with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials this week, seeking authority to have all of HACoLA's 22,000 voucher holders pay more toward their rent.

"I'm effectively asking HUD to allow me to increase all my voucher holders' rent payments by about 5 percent - which is the sequestration amount - so I don't have to terminate anybody," Rogan said. "Spread the pain."

"If it comes down to us having to terminate vouchers, we've exempted seniors, the homeless and our special needs population," he added. "We would terminate those who've been on the program the longest and have received the greatest benefit."

HACLA, on the other hand, is poised to notify 24,000 of its 45,000 voucher holders next week that they may have to pay $100-$200 more toward their rent each month.

The increase - which is more than 5 percent - will not kick in for everyone at once. Voucher holders will be hit with the new rates when they recertify their eligibility for the program.

Guthrie said the hike is needed because HACLA's Section 8 program will lose $40 million this year. He worries, however, that many won't be able to afford it.

Those who qualify for vouchers are typically disabled, seniors, veterans and extremely low-income families and individuals who subsist on less than $14,000 a year.

Section 8 was intended to help them spend only 30 percent of their household income on rent.

"For a family paying $200 in rent to see that rate go up, all of a sudden, to $300 a month - that's, at the very least, extremely disruptive and we're very concerned," Guthrie said.

"Those who can't afford it may have to find another place that charges less rent, or move in with family and friends," he added. "Ultimately, it's pushing people out of the system and potentially into homelessness."

Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition For Economic Survival, a tenants' rights organization, called the sequester a "one-two punch to the gut of low-income people."

"It's sort of like an economic tsunami, and the impact is going to be on the most vulnerable," he added. "The Section 8 cuts are essentially making them walk the plank, and many will fall."

HACLA's Section 8 program director Peter Lynn said the agency is reaching out to landlords to see if they can negotiate rents downward, but he conceded this might be difficult.

On top of the cuts to their Section 8, public housing, and other programs, HACoLA and HACLA will also have to endure cuts to their administrative budgets - which means layoffs and furloughs for their already depleted staffs effective this month.

Guthrie said HACLA could shed as many as 80 employees, bringing its staff down to about 700 - only half as many as it had four years ago. Rogan said HACoLA eliminated 66 positions last year, and could lose more this year.

Worried about the sequester, Supervisor Don Knabe asked the Board of Supervisors Tuesday to urge Washington D.C. officials to protect the county's safety net.

"Our leaders at the federal level must come to agreement on a balanced, sensible budget," he said. "We don't need more rhetoric - we need compromise and thoughtful solutions."

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