HOUSE SLASHES HOUSING CASH-NO THANKS TO RICK LAZIO

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Last week, New York City’s media pundits filled dozens of pages pondering over how to pin down Long Island Congressman Rick Lazio. Sunny, apple-cheeked moderate? Anti-abortion, pro-Gingrich wack job in disguise? Or simply pliable party hack?

Housing boosters may have the clearest answer so far: cheapskate.

A few weeks ago, the House of Representatives passed its version of next year’s budget for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Once again, the House has shortchanged the housing budget, offering a plan that cuts more than $6 billion from the president’s request. The cuts come in spite of bloated federal surpluses and reams of recent studies documenting the housing crunch now afflicting both poor and middle-class people.

But if housing-starved New Yorkers hoped that Senate hopeful and housing subcommittee chair Rick Lazio would rescue them, they’re in for a disappointment. He may not be solely to blame, but he didn’t exactly save the day, either.

“As the majority leader on the [Housing and Community Opportunity] subcommittee, he has tremendous power over that [budget] process,” said Keith Cylar, Co-Executive Director of Housing Works, a housing and AIDS advocacy group. “In many ways, it reflects his priorities. For him to have a modest budget isn’t going to do us [New York City] a whole lot of good.”

It’s certainly not fair to pin all the blame on Lazio. He can set general budget parameters, but the ultimate decisions are controlled by a separate appropriations committee. Lazio has pushed for more funding in the past, and he has fought to rescue HUD from its mortal enemies. And he did vote against this budget package, pointed out an indignant Lazio spokesperson: “The congressman worked hard to ensure that there would be enhanced funding.”

But it’s just as clear, say Congressional budget insiders, that the congressman either doesn’t have the clout to get the cash–or won’t use the pull he does have. “It may have more to do with lack of influence than lack of trying,” said one.

In the end New York City, which depends on more than a billion dollars from HUD each year, would be hit hard by the House’s version of the budget. Among the proposed cuts:

— The $5 billion Community Development Block Grants, which provided New York City with around $250 million last year, would be slashed by $300 million.

— Public housing operating and improvement funds will be cut by a quarter of a billion.

— Money for affordable housing rehab would also dwindle slightly.

Once again, the House doesn’t set aside any new money for subsidized Section 8 housing vouchers. This housing program has a 200,000-family waiting list in New York City.

“The bottom line is, Lazio’s a Republican,” said Cylar. “He’s very much marching along the party lines.”