Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., at podium, speaks during a news conference on the Senate steps on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, to discuss the ongoing budget battle. President Barack Obama was making plans to talk with Republican lawmakers at the White House in the coming days as pressure builds on both sides to resolve their deadlock over the federal debt limit and the partial government shutdown. Front row, from left are, Reid, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Ill. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
A top Massachusetts housing official warned that the state will no longer be able to pay landlords rental assistance for low-income tenants if the government shutdown continues through the end of the month.
Aaron Gornstein, Massachusetts’s undersecretary for housing and community development, said the state is operating its Section 8 rental assistance off money that it received before the federal government shut down Oct. 1. However, if Congress does not reopen the government, that money will run out.
“We had some funds that were flowing, but starting Nov. 1, however, we will not have those funds,” Gornstein said. “We will not be able to make payments to landlords, so what could happen is landlords may start the eviction process. But we don’t know.”
Gornstein’s comments come as social service providers and government officials have been trying to warn the public about the long-term impacts of a shutdown, even as many of those impacts are not yet apparent. Gornstein spoke to The Republican/MassLive.com on Tuesday before a rally of social service provider, who called on Congress to restore government funding. While some effects of the shutdown are obvious – for example, non-essential federal employees have been out of work since Oct. 1 – many government programs still have money to function for several weeks.
Even within the Section 8 rental assistance program, it is hard to determine the exact impact of the shutdown. Around 20,000 Massachusetts residents get Section 8 vouchers administered by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development. But around 55,000 Massachusetts residents receive housing vouchers from local housing authorities, which have independent budgets.
Mary Ellen Lowney, a spokeswoman for the Springfield Housing Authority, said the rental assistance it administers is funded through the end of December.
Michael Kane, executive director of the Boston-based Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants, went to Washington this week to lobby moderate Republicans in Congress to resolve the shutdown. Kane said housing agencies nationwide generally have enough federal money to get through October. “But after October, there’s no guarantees,” Kane said. “If they don’t get money, landlords might find they’re not getting payments…. If the shutdown continues more than another week or two, we could be talking about mass displacement of millions of low-income tenants in a few weeks.”
Carolyn Federoff, a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Boston and executive vice president of a union representing HUD employees, said after October, an agency’s funding depends on how much money it has in reserves. Realistically, she said no Massachusetts housing court is likely to evict a family from public housing before the winter because the government has stopped paying landlords. “I predict people will continue to be housed,” she said. “Whether or not there’s money to keep electricity or lights on…there will be little or no maintenance.”
Similarly, several other assistance programs have money, but only through this month. In Massachusetts, 887,000 people benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. Anyone who clicks on the SNAP benefits page on the U.S. Department of Agriculture website will see a message, “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available.” However, Matthew Kitsos, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, said benefits are continuing through October.
“While a long-term federal shutdown would have an impact on SNAP benefits and the approximately 887,000 individuals that receive these benefits in Massachusetts, October benefits have been authorized through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and are currently being issued,” Kitsos said.
As MassLive.com previously reported, a major concern for social services agencies is fuel assistance. But while agencies have lost funding for staff to process applications, and some are relying on reserves, actual benefits to individuals are not scheduled to start until Nov. 1.
The Massachusetts Association for Community Action, which represents service providers, has asked the legislature for $20 million in state funding for the program, but the legislature has not taken action yet on that request. “We’re assuming that if the federal government shutdown continues through the month, it’s going to directly impact that program and people will not get fuel assistance,” Gornstein said.
Gornstein said the state’s program for weatherization and heating system repair will also not be able to function as of Nov 1.
The state has not provided information about how long it has funding for other programs. Kitsos said the federal government will not continue quarterly formula grants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and “as these programs run out of cash on hand, they will not be able to provide services.” Kitsos could not say when that is expected to happen.
Meanwhile, the agencies that administer social service programs are trying to keep pressure on the federal government to reopen before benefits are denied.
Nearly a dozen service providers attended Tuesday’s rally hosted by the social service agency Action for Boston Community Development. “We just want to keep the word going that this can’t continue,” said Paul Bailey, executive director of Springfield Partners for Community Action. “It can only go on for so long.”
Emily Shea, commissioner of the city of Boston’s Commission on Affairs of the Elderly, said by the end of October, “phones will be ringing off the hook in the mayor’s office” from seniors seeking heating assistance.
Many expressed frustration with Congress. John Drew, president and CEO of ABCD, said in his 40 years with the agency, said, “I don’t remember as much bumbling idiocy…from our national government.”