PHA residents take case to Washington

Posted: June 21, 2007

WASHINGTON - Pittsburgh public-housing advocate Dorphus Jackson had a message he wanted to deliver: "Remember, the White House is also public housing!"

Lacking in numbers but exuding passion for their cause, several hundred public-housing residents from Philadelphia and around the country rallied at the Capitol yesterday, demanding restoration of funding cuts that they assert are crippling maintenance and other services.

"Today is about speaking up for yourselves," said Philadelphia Housing Authority Director Carl R. Greene, who addressed an audience that included 20 busloads of residents from Philadelphia.

Asia Coney, a PHA contract employee and director of the National Coalition to Preserve Public and Assisted Housing, which organized the demonstration, said she would organize a letter-writing campaign, a petition drive and a phone bank to persuade lawmakers to restore funding as soon as possible for federal public-housing programs.

"I firmly believe that if you say things loud enough, long enough and often enough, they will hear you," said Coney, who presides over PHA's residents' advisory board.

Coney said the war in Iraq has diverted funds that might otherwise have been spent on domestic programs, including public and assisted housing.

"The federal government seems to be getting out of the housing business," she said.

Citing federal budget cuts, PHA in January laid off 350 employees, or more than one-fifth of its 1,600-person workforce. Two years ago, PHA's annual budget was $358 million, while this year it is $313 million, according to PHA spokesman Kirk Dorn.

The cut in federal spending has had a real impact on PHA's 84,000 clients, who live in 49 public-housing developments and 10 scatter-site subsidized clusters. Prior to the layoffs, a routine service request took 15 days to fulfill. Dorn said it now takes 30 days.

The Philadelphia layoffs were prompted by an advisory issued late last year by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which said that it would fund all local housing authorities this year at only 76 percent of the amount the agency said was needed for them to operate at an optimal level.

Because of the delay in construction of housing units, Coney said, more than 3,000 elderly and low-income people now are on a waiting list for public housing in Philadelphia.

Demonstrators traveled by bus from as far away as Cincinnati and New Orleans. They wore T-shirts identifying their housing authorities and many carried signs. Even more toted water bottles on a muggy day.

Organizers expected up to 4,000 protesters, but traffic and other problems delayed the arrival of many buses.

The rally had the air of a revival meeting, with the call-and-response carrying a markedly political theme.

"What did we come for?"

"Our money!"

"If you can't restore the budget . . ."

"Get out the House."

Also addressing the rally was Rep. Robert A. Brady (D., Pa.), who helped the coalition obtain the necessary permits to gather on the west lawn of the Capitol. "Public housing is home to millions of Americans . . . 43 percent are families with children and 19 percent are elderly," said Brady. "Every one of those families deserves clean, safe and affordable housing."

Brady announced that he is forming a Public Housing Caucus in the House of Representatives, seeking like-minded lawmakers who will work to restore what Brady described as "13 years of cuts to the most vulnerable Americans."

In his remarks, the PHA's Greene urged demonstrators to use their voices to get the attention of lawmakers.

"You can get all those workers back, and some new buildings, here," he said, pointing at the Capitol. "You're in the money capital of the world."

After Brady's remarks, demonstrators walked or rode seven blocks to HUD headquarters for the second part of their protest.


Watch a video of the rally at http://go.philly.com/NCPPAH


Contact staff writer Steve Goldstein at 202-408-2758 or slgoldstein@phillynews.com.

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