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The Columbus Dispatch
Jonathan Riskind

Housing Fix takes ridiculous detour

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Marilyn Frank must feel as if she’s living in a bureaucratic twilight zone.

Like the denizens of that great old television show who found themselves thrust into an upside-down world full of the bizarre, the twisted and the just plain illogical, Frank must wonder if she’s ever going to escape back to normalcy.

The answer for the director of the Creative Living complex near Ohio State University’s campus is yes, probably. But before she can flee this particular twilight zone, Frank will get a full taste of the frustrating and often ridiculous world known as Capitol Hill.

Creative Living has for years operated 34 federally subsidized housing units near the OSU campus, some of which are rented by disabled students who need the rent break gained by living in so-called Section 8 housing and the assistance gained by living in the disabled-friendly complex. These students don’t have great means and face a lot of expenses and hurdles in trying to achieve a higher education that will allow them to live as independent, productive adults.

Enter Congress and the law of unintended consequences. That’s too often the result when lawmakers pass legislation, and in this case little old Creative Living got caught in that snare.

It all started with a bill aiming at cracking down on subsidized-housing abuses at the University of Iowa involving student-athletes, some with affluent parents, on scholarships living in Section 8 housing meant for lowincome people. Legislation written by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, required the federal government to count more of a student’s finances to determine eligibility for federally subsidized housing.

But the rules that put the law into effect Jan. 30 also count as income independent-living-assistance funding received by the disabled students in the Creative Living complex. Veterans and a few others were exempted, but nobody thought about disabled students, which is ironic considering that Harkin is one of the foremost advocates for the disabled in Congress.

A big part of Creative Living’s mission was endangered, Frank said. She pursued help from local lawmakers and tried to shine a media spotlight on Creative Living’s plight. All she sought was an exemption letting disabled students continue to use the complex’s Section 8 housing. Basically, she just wanted a return to the status quo.

Soon enough, Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Upper Arlington, had introduced a bill to correct the problem. It was supported by Harkin and Bush administration officials and appeared to be on the fast track toward passage.

Crisis resolved, right?

Well, not exactly.

Enter the Congressional Budget Office, which is charged with providing cost estimates of pending bills.

Pryce was shocked to see that the CBO had saddled her little bill with a $1 billion price tag, effectively stopping it in its tracks.
The CBO failed to look at the whole picture, that the bill simply was restoring the long-held ability of Creative Living - and any of the likely small number of other such facilities out there - to aid disabled students.

Instead, the budget office based its estimate on the fact that the current law does apply to disabled students and Section 8 housing. And it figured the cost as if half of all 61,000 disabled students theoretically eligible for Section 8 housing suddenly got the benefit.

That’s totally ridiculous, fumed Frank, who tries to help a half-dozen to a dozen or so disabled students at any one time. That’s totally ridiculous, fumed Pryce, but she’s been in Congress a long time and recognized a bureaucratic flub.

So Pryce scaled back her bill to apply only to disabled students in Section 8 housing as of Nov. 30, 2005, which protects current Creative Living clients. The measure passed the House last week and shouldn’t have any problems in the Senate.

And now Pryce has to fix the problem by persuading the budget office to apply some logic to its analysis. Let’s hope that’s not an unrealistic goal.

Meanwhile, Frank tries not to worry, even as she hopes to soon escape the twilight zone known as Capitol Hill.

Jonathan Riskind is Dispatch Washington Bureau Chief

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