Some local leaders are bracing for the worst as they review President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget, which could jeopardize the long-term sustainability of some Schenectady housing projects.
“We’re devastated by the cuts,” said Rich Homenick, chairman of the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority. “The message here is clearly, ‘Let’s impact housing to the point where it can’t exist.’”
Trump’s budget proposal, which still must be approved by Congress before it is finalized, makes sweeping cuts to social programs, public education and public housing, which White House officials have argued will create savings at the federal level. Cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development are of particular concern to Homenick, who said the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority, and agencies state-wide, may struggle to maintain its properties if the cuts go into effect.
The 2017 budget provides $1.9 billion for the public housing capital fund, which is dispersed among municipal housing agencies to be used for physical infrastructure projects. Under Trump’s proposed 2018 budget, that amount would be slashed by 68 percent, leaving $628 million in funding.
The public housing operating fund, which goes toward administration, insurance, equipment and other costs of doing business, would be cut by 11 percent federally, from $4.4 billion in 2017 to $3.9 billion in 2018.
“This is unprecedented,” Homenick said, noting close to 2,500 families could be affected in the city. “I’m looking at this as potentially a public health crisis.”
The Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority received $1.4 million from HUD in 2017, but under the new proposal would only get about $458,000 for its capital fund. Its federal contribution toward the public housing operating fund would be slashed from $2.8 million to $2.5 million.
The capital fund is especially worrisome to Homenick. The Schenectady housing authority already has a backlog of $8 million due to chronic underfunding, he said.
As a result, it has had to stagger window and roof replacements at its properties rather than do them all at once, delay lead-based paint abatement, and put off the replacement of aging water, sewer and gas lines.
At the moment, none of the properties are unsafe or pose a risk to public health, Homenick said, but given the proposed cuts, keeping up with aging infrastructure will become increasingly difficult. If the housing authority can’t proactively replace outdated gas mains, he said, it could break, leading to costly repairs and leaving residents without heat.
Furthermore, the inability to fully remove lead-based paint or make infrastructure improvements could put residents’ health at risk, Homenick said. He’s hopeful that HUD Secretary Ben Carson, a medical doctor, will note that and push for more money.
Many of the roughly 1,000 tenants in Schenectady public housing face significant challenges with poverty and mobility, Homenick said. If the authority can’t properly serve those individuals, it could lead to an increase in homelessness locally, he said.
In addition, budget cuts could create a ripple effect for other area businesses, Homenick said. The Schenectady agency has contracts with local businesses for pest control, roof repairs and other services that might suffer if the authority is forced to slash its budget, he said.
Homenick and other city leaders are reaching out to the state’s delegation in Congress, members of which have been receptive to the potential budget impact on housing, he said. However, he acknowledged that federal leaders are likely also hearing from individuals advocating for more funding in transportation, education and elsewhere.
“I hear Trump is a negotiator, so he’s going to start extremely low, but this is the lowest I’ve seen in my career here,” Homenick said of the budget. “And usually when you start low, you end up lower than maybe you would have if you started higher.”