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Rents could be raised for some of the nation’s poorest tenants under a provision of a bill now working its way through Congress.

A draft version of a bill entitled the Affordable Housing and Self-Sufficiency Improvement Act, released on Jan. 13 would remove a cap in place since 1998, allowing the housing secretary and public housing landlords to boost rents in housing projects and project- based Section 8 apartments.

As Street Sense was going to press on the evening of Jan. 17, housing advocates were expected to convene a meeting at the Southeast Branch Public Library to discuss the possible impact of the bill with public housing tenants.

“I’m going to say to the tenants to go try and meet with the Subcommittee Chairwoman, Congresswoman Biggert, and tell her that there are families who cannot afford an increase in minimum rent, whose housing stability will be threatened by a minimum rent policy that has no cap,” said National Low Income Housing Coalition vice president Linda Couch, a scheduled speaker at the event, organized by the District of Columbia Grassroots Empowerment Project.

A spokesperson for Congresswoman Judy Biggert, an Illinois Republican, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Insurance, Housing and Community Opportunity, did not return calls for comment.

But Laquita Eddie, a resident and community board president at Faircliff Plaza West, a federally-subsidized project-based Section 8 apartment complex in Columbia Heights, predicted that a rent increase would further stretch poor tenants who are already at the breaking point.

“No good can come out of this,” said Eddie. She works at a grocery store and pays more than the minimum rent at her complex. Yet with two sons to support, the challenge to make ends meet is constant.

“I’m still struggling, buying food and keeping my lights on,” she said.

And many of her neighbors are surviving on less. If the rent of the poorest among them is increased, they could face desperate choices, Eddie said. “You are talking about a mom trying to feed her kids. “

In the District, approximately 20,000 residents live in public housing, according to DC Housing Authority data, but not all of them would be affected by the bill. While the D.C. Housing Authority has the freedom to set its own mini- mum rents under the federal “Moving to Work” program, residents of the city’s privately-owned project-based Section 8 units would fall under the draft law. As of Nov, 2011, the District had active contracts for 10,457 units of Project- Based Section 8 housing, according to data contained on the website of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.

Project-based Section 8 tenants typically pay 30 percent of their monthly income toward rent, with rental assistance making up the difference between what the tenants can afford and the approved rent. But even ten- ants with very little or no income are required to pay something.

Currently, if 30 percent of a tenant’s income is less than $50, he or she can be charged a minimum rent of up to$50 a month. Under the draft of the new law, the cap on the minimum rent would be lifted. The new minimum rent would be set at at least $69.45, and would be annually indexed to inflation.

“The current HUD secretary, or the next one could go beyond,” said Couch. With the cap removed, “there is no limit.”

A HUD spokeswoman said she could not comment on the pending legislation. The bill, which may be scheduled for markup in coming weeks, is part of larger ongoing reform efforts that have targeted rental assistance programs run by HUD. Housing officials and lawmakers say the reforms are intended to preserve and expand affordable housing opportunities.

The nation’s public housing system, which currently serves more than 4 million elderly, disabled, homeless, poor and working individuals and families and subsidizes over one million Project- Based Section 8 apartments, is facing an historic level of need, according to Assistant HUD Secretary Sandra B. Henriquez, who testified in June before Biggert’s Insurance, Housing and Community Opportunity subcommittee.

Henriquez said HUD’s 2011 “Worst Case Housing Needs” Study showed a 20 percent increase in renters paying more than half their income in rent, living in severely inadequate conditions, or both, between 2007 and 2009.

“The demand on our rental programs has been steadily increasing as incomes have dropped and homes have been lost to foreclosure,” she told the lawmakers.

At Faircliff Plaza West, Santiago DeAngulo has seen that demand first hand.

“We have a waiting list of over 400 here,” said DeAngulo, a district manager for Eagle Point Management, which oversees the operation of the 112-unit complex. Once run-down and crime-ridden, the apartments underwent an $18 million renovation back in 2005. Under project-based rental assistance, HUD’s subsidy is committed for a contractually-determined period.

As part of Faircliff Plaza West’s upgrade project, financed with the help of tax-exempt bonds and low-income housing credits, the development’s Section 8 contract was renewed for 20 years to help ensure the rents would remain affordable.

But not all such contracts are renewed. In the face of rising property values and development pressure, housing officials and advocates across the country face a constant battle to preserve affordable housing. Tenants at Faircliff Plaza West are lucky to have their apartments, even if their rent goes up, said DeAngulo.

“Most of the families who are in the shelters, they would love to be here even if they were paying 50 percent of their income for rent.”