Wheels roll to beat poverty

Both major presidential campaigns are dodging the “P word” — poverty — and misleading voters with a myopic vision of terror, evangelist Jim Wallis, in Madison on the Rolling to Overcome Poverty bus tour, said Friday.

“Whoever is elected, we had better be at their front door to make clear that poverty is the weapon of mass destruction for America,” Wallis said in an interview.

“It touches everything else, in its social costs and connections to terrorism. Investing in a different future makes sense and is the right thing to do. But neither party has that kind of vision.”

Wallis spoke to a group of faith-based social activists at a luncheon at the Northport Apartments hosted by the Greater Isthmus Group of Madison-area Urban Ministry. He is founder of Call to Renewal, a federation of faith-based social justice organizations, and editor of Sojourners magazine.

Northport Apartments, and Packer Townhomes across Northport Drive on the city’s north side, are housing developments for low-income families funded through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and operated by the Housing Ministries of American Baptists in Wisconsin.

Wallis praised programs at the two developments, which provide supportive programs and active roles for their residents.

But federal housing polices are poised to tighten the vise on low-income families.

HUD has proposed to fund fewer Section 8 housing vouchers than currently have been issued by cities and counties to help low-income families subsidize their rent payments. Last week the department lowered the “fair rent” rate up to which it will subsidize tenants in various cities, meaning poor families will end up paying more.

The Section 8 voucher, or even a berth on a waiting list, had long been a symbol of hope for poor families, Wallis said, but when the value of the voucher is cut, “the hope disappears.”

HUD’s 2004 budget has yet to be approved, leaving public housing agencies uncertain on how many vouchers will be funded.

“It’s so ambiguous, you can’t tell what HUD is doing,” said Tom Conrad, a program manager for the Dane County Housing Authority who was handing out information at Friday’s gathering.

In the city of Madison and Dane County, waiting lists for Section 8 housing vouchers have been closed for a year and a half and there is little hope the number of vouchers will soon be increased to allow the agencies to take applicants from waiting lists totaling more than 2,000.

Auggie Olvera, housing operations director for the city of Madison, said in an interview this week that HUD told him to expect a 40 percent cut in funding for Section 8 vouchers over the next five years.

“That would mean going from 1,600 to 1,000 vouchers, kicking 600 families out of the program,” Olvera said. “That’s pretty dramatic. I don’t know what we would do.”

Last month, two former HUD secretaries, Republican Jack Kemp and Democrat Henry Cisneros, urged Congress to drop party differences and forge a bipartisan approach to long overlooked housing issues.

Their report, written with experts from the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies and the National Association of Home Builders, supports Bush administration goals to end chronic homelessness and redirect public housing funds to capital improvements.

Other recommendations included a call for a national housing trust fund to finance construction of affordable rental units. Sen. John Kerry stresses that in his response on housing issues to the Campaign for Housing and Community Development Funding.

Kerry also pointed to his support of the Community Development Homeownership Tax Credit Act to encourage construction of homes in economically distressed areas.

The Bush campaign did not respond to the advocacy group’s questionnaire or to a reporter’s requests for an outline of its housing policy platform.

The Bush administration “talks about a 10-year plan to end homelessness but they don’t put any resources into it,” complained Rachel Krinsky, director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which serves homeless families.

Krinsky said she’s not surprised there’s been so little attention to poverty issues in the campaign. “Poor people don’t vote,” she said.

Home ownership has reached record highs, something for which Dane County Board Supervisor Eileen Bruskewitz credits the Bush administration.

“Bush has done a pretty good job,” said Bruskewitz, a board member of the Wisconsin Apartment Association. “He captured the (low interest rate) moment with the home ownership issue.”

Bruskewitz said, though, that she sees little difference from one administration to another on housing issues.

Peggy Wireman of Madison, author of the satirical “Alice in Bushland: Fact and Fantasy in the Bush Administration,” argues that many Bush policies will continue to make housing harder for people to afford.

Cuts in payments to local governments push up property taxes and rents, while a growing deficit forces up interest rates, Wireman said in an interview.

Housing has been seldom mentioned in the campaign because it’s a complex issue wrongly seen as affecting only the urban poor, she said.

“I don’t think people realize the extent to which a lot of programs depend directly or indirectly on federal money, or how vulnerable those programs are.”