September 16, 2002
"SUPERWAIVER" WOULD ALLOW FUNDAMENTAL CHANGES TO
PUBLIC HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS PROGRAMS
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The TANF reauthorization bill passed by the House of Representatives on May 16 contains a proposal to grant sweeping authority to the Executive Branch to override, at the request of a governor and, in some cases, a local government, nearly all provisions of federal law that govern a range of low-income and other domestic programs. Under this "superwaiver" proposal, Executive Branch officials would have virtually unfettered authority to approve waivers that effectively rewrite federal laws and alter the fundamental nature of affected programs. The Executive Branch could approve waivers that allow states to use federal funds in ways not authorized by Congress and negate provisions of federal law that target program funds to particular needy populations. Although the superwaiver proposal is included in TANF reauthorization legislation, it applies to a number of other programs, including public housing, some of the largest federal homelessness programs, food stamps, child care, job training, and adult education programs.
Earlier CBPP papers have examined the superwaiver proposal’s overall implications (see http://www.cbpp.org/5-13-02tanf.pdf) and its potential impact on the food stamp program (see http://www.cbpp.org/5-13-02fs2.htm). This analysis examines the proposal’s implications for homelessness programs and public housing. It finds:
- Congressional decisions regarding public housing time limits, rent rules, and other controversial issues could be overturned. Many of the current rules that govern housing and homelessness programs are the result of decisions made by Congress after extensive debate and compromise among competing interests. Superwaiver authority would replace Congressional legislative processes with largely behind-closed-doors Executive Branch deliberations and decisions. Congress would have no role in a process that would effectively allow executive officials at the federal, state, and sometimes local levels to create new federal laws that had never been voted on by Congress. Moreover, in many cases the state legislature or city council would have no role or only a limited role in superwaiver decisions that affect their jurisdictions. Low-income families and individuals who would be affected would thus have less opportunity to participate in the decision-making process through their elected representatives.
Superwaivers could be used to replace some state funding currently being used for low-income programs with federal funds from housing and homelessness programs. As a result, superwaiver authority would likely lead in some areas to a reduction in the total amount of resources provided for low-income families and communities from federal and state sources combined. States often face substantial budget pressures, especially in bad economic times when they — unlike the federal government — must balance their budgets. The opportunity the superwaiver would present states to replace state funding for some low-income programs with federal funds and to use the freed-up state funds to fill budget holes would likely prove attractive, especially when alternative policy courses involve politically painful choices.
The statutory provisions that limit demolition, sale, or conversion of housing projects or homeless facilities could be waived. As a result, buildings could be sold and the proceeds spent on purposes other than providing housing assistance to low income families, allowing the substantial federal investment in these facilities to be diverted away from the uses for which it was intended. Requirements that public housing residents who lose their homes receive relocation assistance could also be waived.
Programs that are administered by local bodies and grants that are distributed through competitive processes could still be subject to superwaivers. Waiver applications for programs run by “sub-state entities” must be submitted jointly by the governor and the head of the administering entity. However, these waivers could be just as broad as waivers for other programs, and in some cases states may be able to pressure housing agencies and other local entities to accept waivers that they would not have sought on their own.
The Executive Branch could waive basic targeting requirements that Congress has set for housing and homelessness programs to ensure that federal funds serve those most in need. Requirements that at least 40 percent of applicants admitted to public housing each year be “extremely low-income” (defined as households with incomes below 30 percent of the area median income, which is roughly equivalent to the poverty line) could be waived. Similarly, the definition of “homeless” that targets federal assistance toward families and individuals that are in shelters, on the streets, or constantly moving from place to place could be expanded to include a much broader group of households considered to be at risk of homelessness. Consequently, resources could be shifted from the most destitute families to families that have somewhat higher incomes and less acute need.
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