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House Backs Public Housing Shift Legislation Would Give Local Authorities More Control

The House approved a measure Wednesday that would dramatically change the nation’s public housing system by giving local authorities greater flexibility and power in administering public housing and rental subsidies for 6.5 million poor families.

The measure, passed on a 293-to-132 vote, faces an uncertain future. Last week, the Senate Banking Committee approved a more modest bill, and similar differences resulted in a stalemate between House and Senate negotiators as last year’s congressional session ended, killing the effort.

This year, though, backers of overhauling public housing said they hope a compromise can be reached. The Clinton administration said it supports the goal of the House bill but objects to various provisions.

Supporters of the House bill said it was intended to help public housing residents move toward self-sufficiency and away from dependency on government aid. The measure would change the mix of public housing residents by requiring that 65 percent of new tenants hold jobs that pay them at least 80 percent of the area’s median income. Current law requires that three-quarters of public-housing tenants earn no more than 30 percent of the area’s median income. Supporters said the change was intended to improve the cultures of public housing and cut crime and drug use.

In addition, the bill would no longer link rent to a tenant’s income, which some have said discourages public housing residents from working.

While opponents acknowledged problems with the current public housing system, they said the measure went too far. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, D-Mass., said the measure represented an “abandonment of (the) commitment … to compassion and to caring for others.”

Some of the most spirited debate over the measure, which stretched over three weeks, dealt with a provision that would require able-bodied tenants who are unemployed to perform eight hours of community service a month and to work toward such goals as job training or graduation from high school. The elderly and the disabled would be exempted.

Supporters said it was part of an effort to make tenants feel involved with their communities. “You’re giving something back to the community,” said Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va. “That’s exactly what Franklin Roosevelt intended for federal housing programs, not what we have today.”

Opponents said the provision was demeaning to public-housing residents. “Forced community work … brings to mind the type of punishment imposed by a judge for a crime,” said Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., D-Ill. “It is inappropriate to treat residents of housing assistance as if they have committed a crime simply by being poor.”

The House rejected several Democratic attempts to modify the requirement, including one offered by Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., that would have mandated that residents be paid at least minimum wage for their work.

“Forcing people to work without paying them is an abomination. If you want to raise their esteem, pay them for the work you’re requiring,” said Watt, who likened the provision to slavery.