WASHINGTON – The debate over cuts to a federal housing voucher program spilled over into the presidential campaign Thursday as Democrats claimed the Bush administration has failed to make affordable housing a priority.
The criticism came as Housing and Urban Development (search) Secretary Alphonso Jackson (search), in a speech hours later, touted the administration's commitment to expanding home ownership, especially for minorities.
"There is a tremendous housing crisis in this country and this administration is making it worse," said Andrew Cuomo (search), a HUD secretary during the Clinton administration. He said any increases in home ownership in the past three years were triggered by lower interest rates, not by administration action.
"He (Jackson) might as well say cockadoodledo, and take credit for the sunrise," said Rep. Barney Frank (search), D-Mass., who appeared with Cuomo at a news conference on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search).
The event was the first by Kerry's campaign to focus on housing issues. Kerry has not issued any plan to boost the availability of affordable housing.
Jackson, who became secretary less than three months ago, has come under fire in Congress and from state and local officials for recent cuts in the $14.5 billion housing voucher program known as "Section 8." The rental program helps nearly 2 million families through some 2,500 local agencies.
Jackson said HUD is still working on the funding problems, and blamed housing authorities for leasing too many units and exceeding their funding caps.
"Nobody is facing eviction," he said. "The housing authorities did what we told them not to do. They have to find a way to pay for it."
Jackson added that the administration still hopes to get legislation passed that would give local housing authorities more flexibility to decide how to spend their money.
Under the Bush administration and through new home ownership and down payment initiatives, Jackson said "owning a home is an affordable option for more families than ever before." Efforts to increase minority home ownership in the last three years have led to 1.5 million new minority homeowners, he said.
But a gap remains between ownership among whites and minorities. The homeownership rate for whites is more than 75 percent, and at about 50 percent for blacks and Hispanics.
Frank said the administration has a poor record on housing.
"There is nowhere in the federal government where this administration has been more aggressively opposed to programs to help alleviate economic unfairness and gross inequality that in the housing area," he said.
Frank said Democrats in Congress will try to block administration efforts to turn the Section 8 program into a grant to the states.