For working poor seeking housing help, budget cuts bring tough choices

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 | 6:11 p.m. CDT; updated 8:21 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 12, 2013

COLUMBIA — Gresia Zapien knows her number in line from memory: 1,992. The 21-year-old single mother applied for housing assistance more than two years ago. She's still waiting.

Zapien and her 4-year-old son, Alfredo, live with a roommate in an apartment near the Interstate 70 Lake of the Woods exit east of town. Their share of the rent is $400, and utilities and other household bills are usually $250 a month. 

Zapien's paycheck from a job at the Midway Truck Stop doesn't always cover costs, forcing her to charge gas and other necessities. 

"Sometimes there's enough money, sometimes there isn't," she said.

Admission into the Columbia Housing Authority's Section 8 program, which provides rental subsidies for low-income families living in private properties, would help Zapien, a 2011 Douglass High School graduate, go back to college to become a dental hygienist or, ideally, a dentist.

But sequestration, or $85 billion in federal budget cuts, will impact the number of families the authority can help.

Should funding projections from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development remain in place, the authority would be forced to reduce the number of families that get subsidies by 70, according to agency figures. Currently, 1,132 families receive vouchers for rent, which usually allow participants to pay no more than 30 percent of their income toward housing. 

The wait for families on the Section 8 waiting list could be pushed to three years or more, housing authority CEO Phil Steinhaus said. 

Normally, as 10 to 15 families are removed from the program each month because of a move, change in eligibility or death, they're replaced by people on the waiting list.

It's likely the authority won't select replacements for many months, causing numbers to steadily fall in an effort to withstand the new cuts, Steinhaus said.  

Section 8 funding for 2013 will be $372,757 less than what the federal government says is sufficient to run Columbia's program, and $91,500 less than what the authority expected, according to an analysis by Mary Harvey, director of finance for the authority. 

That's unfortunate, Steinhaus said, because there is tremendous need for Section 8 in Columbia. 

People can add their names to the waiting list only occasionally, and during the last period, for one week in November, 1,500 signed up.

"If we kept it open permanently there would be 5,000 or 6,000 names on the list," Steinhaus said.

In need of a boost

Zapien enjoyed life in Liberal, Kan., but circumstances changed when her parents divorced and her father's welding business struggled during the recession.

One day during her pregnancy, Internal Revenue Service employees took her car keys and once home, she saw workmen take away her father's possessions in moving trucks.

After she gave birth to her son, Zapien got in shape playing defense for her high school soccer team. She thought about playing for Dodge City Community College in Ford County, Kan.

She never attended. Instead, at 17, she moved to Columbia to live with her sister. Zapien said the decision was shortsighted.

"I was young," she said. "I don't know what I was thinking."

She was unable to play soccer at Hickman High School because of eligibility issues. 

Columbia seems less appealing than when she first arrived, but Zapien has stayed, and she said she works hard so that her son might have a better life. 

"I can't go to school full time because I have to work to pay bills and be there for him," she said of Alfredo, who attends Early Head Start and will start playing flag football this summer.

Zapien said Section 8 aid would allow her to attend college at least part-time because she wouldn't have to worry about falling far behind on bills.

Allowing people to better themselves through education is a primary goal of the program, also called Housing Assistance Payments, said Shannon Platero, special programs specialist and intake coordinator at the authority. 

Effects go beyond Section 8

Other authority programs will also be affected by federal cuts. 

Public housing, which encompasses 719 authority-owned housing units at the Providence Family Townhomes, Bear Creek Family Townhomes, Oak Towers and Paquin Tower, will receive $582,744 less in 2013 than what the federal government says is sufficient to run the properties. That's $130,000 less than what the authority, which didn't expect to receive full funding, had budgeted for. 

"We've already been taking cuts," Steinhaus said. "It isn't something new to us. It's death by a thousand budget cuts."

In order to continue to operate its four public housing properties, which averaged 97 percent occupancy in 2012, the authority might need to use up to $70,000 of its capital funds this year, according to Harvey's analysis.

That could force the authority to delay major maintenance projects, such as roof replacements on its buildings. Some of those structures, Steinhaus noted, were built in the 1950s.

Federal infusions for the authority's capital fund have been reduced by 31 percent, or nearly $1.9 million over the past 12 years, and by $372,976 in 2012, according to agency figures. 

The authority's affordable housing initiatives, including plans to work with private developers using tax credits to build low-income apartments and renovate existing ones at Lincoln and Unity drives, also could face funding shortfalls. 

"It's going to have a huge impact," Steinhaus said. Those specifics aren't yet available, he said, because the effects are too far in the future.

Other housing authority officials are more optimistic. 

"Hopefully this will all sort of iron out before there's a crisis," Genie Rogers, vice chair of the housing authority's board of commissioners, said. "The housing authority has been very conservatively run in terms of its budget and finances," so budget cuts shouldn't be catastrophic, she added. 

In Congress, though, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan painted a bleak picture in his Feb. 14 written testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"About 125,000 individuals and families, including elderly and disabled individuals, could lose housing assistance... and be at risk of becoming homeless," he wrote. 

Although the outcome of the negotiations in Washington could have a significant impact on Zapien, she said she is indifferent to the talks.

"There's really nothing we can do about it," she said. "I just do the best I can."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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dan elliott March 13, 2013 | 1:15 p.m.

um, why am i supposed to pay your rent for you making poor choices? perhaps churches should buy a large home and allow families to live in bedrooms or apts, they can charge what they like. but the govt should not take from me and give to someone else who decided to quit school and get pregnant. you live with your choice, you improve on your choice, but you should not take from me because of your choice.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield March 13, 2013 | 6:30 p.m.

Where's the boy's father? Why isn't he helping support the child he choose to create instead of sticking the rest of us with the bill?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 14, 2013 | 6:05 a.m.

Why should the child's biological father assume any responsiblity, financial or otherwise? Even should he wish to, he has probably had no occasion to ever assume responibility for anything, and maybe his elders haven't had to either, so he has no one to instruct him.

But it's all good, because we now know that IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO RAISE A CHILD. We have been told so. Did you read the book?

The concepts of "village" and "collective" aren't totally foreign to each other. Duh! Is there any historic concept of government we associate with collectives?

"Give me the child and the adult will be mine."

I think that sentiment was uttered by a Catholic clergyman, but it applies just as well to histiric Communism and National Socialism.

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