For Carolann Livingstone and her nine-year-old son, public housing is a matter of life and death.
Livingstone, 51, was once homeless, living on the street for one and a half years before public housing provided her a home. With a place to stay, she stabilized her life, finding a job at local church and taking college courses to move out of poverty.
It was not surprising, then, that she made the trip to Boston from Providence, R.I., last Saturday morning to take part in a rally to save public housing tenants’ homes.
More than two-dozen public housing residents braved bone-chilling temperatures to rally in front of the St. Botolph Terrace Apartments in the Fenway, demanding action by Congress and President Bush to prevent mass displacement.
“For the first time in the history of the Section 8 program, the federal government is not providing enough money to renew contracts,” said Michael Kane, director of the Massachusetts Alliance of HUD Tenants.
The project-based Section 8 is a type of federal assistance provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), dedicated to sponsoring subsidized housing for more than 1.3 million low-income families, elderly and disabled people.
“We’ve got here about 15 different tenant organizations. What everybody has in common is that they need Section 8 subsidies so they can stay at their homes,” said Kane.
Kane said that as soon as this week, Congress is expected to pass legislation that would leave HUD nearly $2 billion short of what it needs to cover project-based Section 8 contracts for one full year.
He and others at the rally blamed the pending financial crisis on the Bush administration’s deliberate withholding of fiscal year 2008 funding need estimates from Congress, in the interest of shifting funds to the war in Iraq and other administration priorities.
“President Bush hasn’t been homeless, so he doesn’t know about homeless. All he cares about is war,” said Diane Huggins, 53, who has lived in a Section 8 apartment nearby North Station for the past four years. Bundled in a big grey jumper jacket, Huggins held a sign reading, “Homeland security begins with a Home.”
Livingstone, who is now a board member of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT), said that if HUD cuts off Section 8 subsidies, tenants would be forced to pay the difference. It would mean an overnight increase of three to four times in their current rent payment, which could force many tenants onto the street.
Making matters worse is the recent change of ownership of St. Botolph Terrace Apartments. The 52-unit complex at 351-367 Massachusetts Avenue was sold last Thursday to Northeastern University.
A letter to the residents from Kenneth and Cecil Guscott, the former owners of the complex, said in part that the sale “will have no consequences in your daily life … Your rent formula will remain the same for every resident. The new owner is committed to continue to carry out fully the Section 8 program and to provide excellent housing management and services.”
HUD spokeswoman Kristine Foye said that the tenants can stay through at least 2023.
“Our main goal is always to protect tenants … we are funding subsides for 164,000 units in Massachusetts,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s premature to talk about the budget because it hasn’t passed yet.”
Foye said she was not aware of any contingency plans for a possible financial crisis, largely because HUD has never experienced such potential Section 8 shortfalls.
Though Northeastern officials said in a statement that the school would “continue using the property as subsidized housing through the year 2023,” tenants said they still fear that Northeastern would raise rents — or worse, convert the complex into dorms — if federal funding for Section 8 is cut.
Christopher Roberson, 41, a court official, has lived in St. Botolph Terrace more than 25 years. When he was 4 years old, he was involved in a car accident that put him into a coma for seven weeks. He still hobbles.
“I am preparing for the worst because I don’t want to be homeless,” said Roberson, who pays a quarter of his monthly income for rent. “To live around here, it costs over two grand a month. That’s ridiculous — that’s a mortgage payment.”
Despite its location, only a few tenants from St. Botolph Terrance attended the rally. Roberson said the others stayed away out of fear of angering the building’s owners.
“People are afraid to speak up because of potential repercussions,” he said. “I just hope that it doesn’t get [the owners] mad and [lead them to] try to get us out of here sooner.”
Rosalind Dawson, who lives in St. Botolph Terrace with her 9-year-old son and her dog Happy, has been a building resident for over 20 years and knows most of the tenants. The majority are Hispanic, and there are some blacks and Asians in the building, she said.
“Some people are extremely afraid to lose their homes because they came from a very impoverished situation,” she said. “But they just don’t understand what’s really going on.”
Most of Dawson’s rent is paid by HUD. She said the rally was a tool to enlighten the St. Botolph tenants.
“If you have a rally right here, everyone is watching. There is nobody that wasn’t watching,” she said. “They can see what we are trying to do. They can hear what’s going on.”
The group in the rally urged tenants to take action not to lose their homes.
“We need all the tenants to be aware what’s going on and to call their elected officials,” said William Pryor, chair of the Brownstone Alliance, an association of tenants at a building in the South End.
Eight U.S. senators sent a letter earlier this month asking other senators to address the president’s significant underestimation of the funding needs for the project-based Section 8 program.
Livingstone said that if the money is not appropriated to HUD, as many as 100,000 people across the country could become homeless this winter.
“In the building where I live, we have people with mental and health problems,” said Livingstone. “Where are they gonna go? It’s getting cold. This is New England.”