By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
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Unlike his holiday parade in Babylon, where a stumble left him with a split lip, Congressman Rick Lazio had no problem striding across East 116th Street just days after picking up the senatorial mantle shed by Rudy Giuliani. Lazio chose East Harlem as the spot for his first city neighborhood appearance, chatting with vendors at La Marqueta on Park Avenue. Had he wandered just a few blocks further east, however, the Long Islander might have made a bigger misstep than the one that left him with eight stitches on Memorial Day weekend.
Such a jaunt would have deposited Lazio in the heart of what he has called "federally subsidized slums," "warehouses for the poor," and blocks of "broken doors, broken windows, broken dreamspublic housing in America." As chair of the House subcommittee on housing for seven years, ditching public housing was Lazio's main mission. While the media paint the 42-year-old Republican as an unknown, a review of Lazio's public housing agenda fills in some blanks. If the congressman is something of a mystery to reporters and voters, public housing tenantsin New York City, about 430,000 peopleare almost sure to know his influence, if not his name.
That's because Lazio sponsored the most far-reaching and arguably most damaging public housing legislation to come down the Beltway in 60 years. (See "Unwelcome Mat," October 19, 1999.) Called the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, Lazio's law requires most tenants to "volunteer" eight hours of monthly community service, on pain of eviction. It shuns the very poor in favor of working families. And it tightens the vise by allowing public housing to be demolished while forbidding any expansion.
"This is a very punitive act, especially for very-low-income people," says Catherine Bishop of the National Housing Law Project. "Where are these people going to go? There's a huge disconnect, and Rick Lazio is very responsible for it."
Punishing as the 1998 law is, it's a much moderated version of plans Lazio had floated since the mid 1990s, when he led the GOP-dominated Congress on a crusade to slay the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Ultimately, those plans were scrapped or tempered by the Senate, with much credit due, surprisingly, to then senator Al D'Amato.
"What Lazio tried to do would've been a complete disaster for New York housing," says housing activist Claude Rolo. "The Senate version of the bill wasn't great, but it was better than what he wanted. It was outrageous." Lazio's campaign did not return calls.
Among Lazio's failed proposals was banishing the federal law that caps the rent of public housing tenants at 30 percent of their income. He also wanted to kill provisions that forbid eviction without "good cause." Together, those plans could have led to a massive bleeding of the poorest tenants from public housing.
The congressman also wanted each of the country's 9 million public housing tenants to sign individual contracts outlining plans for "graduation" from public housing. Tenants who failed to fulfill contracts would face eviction. Lazio would have replaced local public housing authorities with new agencies and substituted government housing with vouchers for private housing. Tenants would be allowed only one grievance hearing per year. Those related to drugs would not be heard at all.
What did survive in the 1998 act, along with allowing demolition and prohibiting public housing expansion, is a core Lazio provision to "deconcentrate" poverty in public housing. Local authorities are required to reserve only 40 percent of their housing for very-low-income applicants. (Lazio himself wanted an even lower 35 percent set aside; the Senate upped the figure.) Housing authorities across the country are just now putting the law into practice.
At the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the potential for harm is great. A full 83 percent of the applicants on NYCHA's already crammed waiting list are very-low-income, with less than $13,440 a year for a family of three. Lazio's bill forces them to yield to the working poor, who can earn up to $38,450 for the same family size.
Some of the lowest-income applicants will be housed through an increase, however inadequate, in vouchers. NYCHA expects 3000 and to give 75 percent to very-low-income applicants, meaning that about 90,000 families will compete for 2250 vouchers.
NYCHA is still working out the details of Lazio's community service requirement, which can mean big trouble should tenants fail, but offers little real help. "The best way to deconcentrate poverty is by raising the incomes of folks who already live in public housing," says Dushaw Hockett of the Public Housing Resident Alliance. "You have to invest in the people who live there through meaningful jobs."
Throughout the debate, Lazio posed as a moderate; early on, he called for reforming, not trashing, HUD. But his plans were steeped in the most conservative Republican ideology, idolizing self-sufficiency and hard work, as if those attributes could overcome such powerful forces as shifting economies and political trends.
Calling a 1997 version of his housing bill "a fair deal for the American taxpayer" and "a new opportunity for the ambitious tenant," Lazio also warned that it was "a wake-up call for the people who thought they could count on a free ride."