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Kansas City residents brace for Section 8 cuts

By Matt Hackworth

KANSAS CITY – More than 75-hundred households in Kansas City benefit from the Section 8 housing program. The federal plan provides vouchers to help low-income residents pay rent in privately-owned apartment complexes. It's an expensive program, and Congress voted to limit funding for Section 8. As K-C-U-R's Matt Hackworth reports, rent will soon become more expensive for potentially thousands of Kansas City residents.

Leola Fikes just got out of the hospital. She says she has severe asthma, pleurisy, a partially paralyzed right arm and a tumor in her left arm. Still, she finds the energy to corral two kids in the yard of her townhouse.

"Just get on in the house cause I'm busy... you so goofy..."

There's a small green lawn in front of the white townhouse. Rent for units like her's in this midtown complex is $520 per month. For a while, Fikes covered all the rent using just her disability benefits.

"It kind of stresses me out a whoile lot when the bills are high and I have to stretch the money out so far..it was kind of difficult but I did it. It was hard we don't take trips, we don't go to movies, we're just here at home, so..."

Fikes says things are still hard for her even now that she uses Section 8 vouchers. The federal program is designed to keep familes like Fikes' out large housing projects by helping them rent form regular apartments. Under Section 8, Fikes pays $214 a month but she soon might have to pay a bit more. Congress has capped funding to Section 8, falling short of what's needed nationwide by an estimated one billion dollars. That puts local housing authority administrators like Charmaine Davis in a tough spot.

"The section 8 program has been in place a little more than 30 years. While the regulations have changed over that period, funding levels have never been threatened like this. This is I've never seen anything like this in the industry, especially for section 8. I've never seen section 8 like this."

Congress limited Section 8 funding to August 2003 levels but Davis says rents in Kansas City and across the country have gone up since then. And Housing Authorities are seeing a reduction in what the government pays them to administer Section 8. To compensate, Kansas City's housing authority will raise most Section 8 rents by at least $10 to $15 or more and the most destitute who pay no rent, will be asked to pay at least $50. It doesn't sound like much but the housing authority's Davis says Section 8 is a program for the poorest in society.

"This stuff isn't fabricated, these people live and breathe every day. They're trying to pay utilities, they're trying to meet their basic fundamental needs to exist and it's difficult. So you'd have to be inhuman to come away with, my goodness what are we doing?"

Federal officials maintain the government had no choice but to curb spending. Paying rent to private landlords makes Section 8 a naturally expensive program. The government's cost has shot up 23 percent per voucher over the last two years. And U-S Department of Housing and Urban Development spokeswoman Donna White says Section 8 takes up more than half of her agency's total budget.

"It's almost unsustainable at that growth level. So Congress, what it's doing is trying to hold that cost where it is, and that's why they took it to the august 20903 payment standard or payment level, that was the highest it had been in a number of years, to see if that's a way to control that cost."

White says HUD made emergency relief available to around 150 local housing authorities but Kansas City's didn't make the cut. Officials at the Housing Authority say they're considering tapping into reserve funds to offset some of the rent increases tenants like Leola Fikes will likely experience. Critics of Section 8 say paying more could be enough incentive to help people like Fikes move into greater self sufficiency. Fikes says she has no choice but to pay more but she feels other section 8 tenants in her complex will end up on the street.

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