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Local HUD funding is in peril under new administration 

click to enlarge The Springs relies on now-imperiled federal funds to combat homelessness. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • The Springs relies on now-imperiled federal funds to combat homelessness.

Whether you're on the streets looking for a safe shelter bed, struggling to make rent after losing your job, or can't afford a home alteration that will accommodate your disability, there is help available. It's limited, to be sure, but it's there.

That could soon change if the new administration's budgetary dreams come true.

President Donald Trump wants to boost military spending by $54 billion, to rebuild supposedly depleted forces and appear "strong" to the rest of the world. To pay for that in a way that fulfills his campaign promise of shrinking the federal deficit while also lowering taxes and sparing Medicare and Social Security, he's attempting what White House chief strategist and white nationalist Steve Bannon has described as "the deconstruction of the administrative state." Hence, his budgetary cleaver, which can't swing without an act of Congress, now hovers over domestic programs that deal with education, environment, arts, science, foreign aid, diplomacy, hunger and housing.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which now pays for the aforementioned help, is slated to lose more than $6 billion if the GOP-controlled Congress rolls with the White House's budget. That would be a 14 percent decrease to a $40.5 billion budget in fiscal year 2018, which starts in October. The Trump plan calls for reduced spending on public housing (of which there's already a shortage and maintenance backlog) and rental assistance that keeps hundreds of thousands of low-income families, the disabled and elderly off the streets). It would also outright eliminate the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which has been credited, in part, for a 47 percent decrease in veteran homelessness since 2010, as well as decades-old block granting programs including the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and the HOME Investment Partnerships Program. Those latter two account for nearly all of our local spending on housing-related services.

In a normal year around this time, the city's Community Development Division would ask City Council to approve a plan specifying the disbursement of those funds. Last year, for example, councilors OK'd spending $2.5 million in federal dollars on a new low-barrier shelter space at the Springs Rescue Mission and a $400,000 improvement to the Deerfield Hills Community Center — projects that created lasting jobs, too.

This year, the division is trying to go through the same motions, but with a major caveat: This year's allocation may come in at a quarter of the size they budgeted. Until the federal budget gets finalized in May, projects that the city has already committed to will move forward, but everything else will be stalled.

"I'm not a 'sky is falling!' kind of person until the sky actually falls," Community Development Division Manager Aimee Cox told Council when presenting the tentative plan. "So I'm not here to tell you 'the sky is falling,' but I am asking you to pay attention to these proposed federal cuts and consider the impact it'll have on the community."

Her office budgeted conservatively, assuming they'd get 3 percent less money than last year. Of the $4,884,229 expected total, $3,137,780 comes from HUD's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), $1,517,649 from the HOME Investment Partnerships Program and $228,800 from the Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG). Those figures include anticipated allocations, rollovers from years past and program income — only allocations are subject to change.

As for what to do with the federal funds, the plan's stated priorities are to "stabilize and improve struggling neighborhoods, increase and preserve the supply of affordable housing and increase the availability of public facilities and services to prevent and end homelessness." Community Development sought public input through meetings with service providers, interest groups and target populations like the elderly, disabled and homeless. In summary, the division reported that "[i]nput from public hearings and meetings largely centered on needs for: more affordable housing, especially for persons with disabilities and people experiencing homelessness; expanded transit services; higher paying jobs; housing and resource navigational services; more resources for seniors (housing and 'age in place' policies); better agency collaboration; better pedestrian infrastructure (accessible sidewalks and complete neighborhood approach); more non-faith-based shelter and supportive housing; more training and incentives for landlords to eliminate housing barriers for the homeless; and hearing-accessible technology in more community venues."

More than a dozen applicants asked the city for federal money to tackle those issues, but they won't hear back until the city knows for sure the size of this year's allocation.

That's because if CDBG and HOME do get completely eliminated, $3.6 million will go away. The city's plan accounts for that with a note about contingency, saying if this year's allocation comes in lower than expected, every budget item will be reduced pro rata. And that could very well mean more people end up on the streets with even fewer available resources.

Housing advocates are taking a more "sky is falling" kind of tone than Cox.

"I'm not going to feign ignorance of reality," Jamie Muth, community organizer with the Independence Center, told Council. "I know you're aware of the 24,000 deficit of affordable units and growing," she added, referring to a 2014 Housing Needs Assessment covering El Paso County.

"We need to see your commitment to making this a viable place to live, work and play," Muth said, noting she'll be back to check that Council's still serious about the action plan after city elections.

The action plan passed an initial vote on March 14, with Councilors Helen Collins and Andres Pico dissenting. All councilors did, however, thank Cox for her 15-year career in public service that will soon end as she becomes CEO of the Community Health Partnership.

After clearing out her desk on Friday, March 17, Cox spoke to the Indy about how it's bittersweet leaving her city post right as the entire department she led is imperiled. (Her position is the only one not funded by the HUD grants now in question.)

"[CDBG] has been really popular for 42 years so I have a hard time contemplating its elimination in one fell swoop," she says, adding that if that does happen, "we have to fill the gap." How, exactly, she's not sure, noting that Council only spends about $300,000 a year on nutrition and winter shelter and that charitable giving can only go so far.

Cox acknowledges that these HUD programs are just some of many on the chopping block right now. "The list is so long it's hard to make a two-minute elevator pitch over the phone about what to save," she said, "but it's very important right now that we as citizens start to take inventory of our own values and articulate that to Council and our other representatives."

Locals may get a chance to meet with newly sworn-in HUD secretary Ben Carson, who has no experience in housing policy, during his nationwide "listening tour" that kicked off in Detroit last week. There, he told gathered community leaders to "forget the numbers and think about the concept," according to the Detroit Free Press. "The concept is we're going to take care of our people." Carson's tour schedule hasn't been released, but given that there are no counties in America with enough affordable housing for low-income families, chances are he'll get an earful wherever he listens.

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