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Use surplus for affordable housing, group says


A religious coalition formed last year to deal with the nation’s housing crisis has petitioned President Clinton and other political leaders, asking them to assign a projected $5 billion surplus in the nation’s federal housing budget to creating more affordable housing.

A letter drafted by leaders of the coalition, titled the Religious Leaders’ National Call for Action on Housing, has been signed by more than 425 religious leaders and faith-based organizations around the country. Signers include Cardinal Francis George of Chicago and Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and 35 other Catholic bishops, along with 81 representatives of Catholic religious orders.

The $5 billion derives from overpayments to the Federal Housing Administration’s mutual insurance fund by families who financed their houses with government-insured loans.

In a telephone interview, Divine Providence Sr. Bernie Galvin said the letter, hand-delivered to leaders in Washington Sept. 28, had been timed to influence “top-level negotiation” underway among government leaders. Representative Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., chairman of the House subcommittee on housing, is among advocates of returning excess funds to borrowers who paid the premiums.

“We don’t hear the candidates speaking out on this on the campaign trail,” Galvin said. “We hear nothing out of the White House. What we are trying to do is to get them to break the silence.”

Galvin is coordinator of the coalition and founder and director of Religious Witness with Homeless People, a San Francisco-based advocacy group.

The coalition’s letter argues that the national housing shortage has become “both chronic and increasingly acute” in recent years, and that “the tragedy of homeless families now permeates the national landscape.”

Among its requests, the letter asks that the $5 billion surplus be used to triple affordable housing construction next year and to assist children with housing-related health problems.

“Over 4 million children suffer from stunted growth, anemia, asthma and significantly poorer overall health than children who are adequately housed,” the letter said.

The coalition was formed last year. Its first effort -- a letter to President Clinton supporting federal budget increases for housing subsidies -- prompted thanks from Andrew Cuomo, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Cuomo wrote the coalition in February to say that its support had “a significant impact” on the budget debate.

The coalition’s co-sponsors are Religious Witness with Homeless People and Housing America. Housing America has offices in San Francisco and St. Louis.

Catholic bishops who signed the letter are as theologically diverse as Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver and Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit.

Other signers include leaders of 22 national umbrella groups along with 34 rabbis, 27 Episcopal bishops, 25 Lutheran bishops, 17 United Methodist bishops, 44 Protestant leaders, 13 Buddhist leaders, 9 Islamic imams or leaders of Islamic groups, and one Hindu leader.

National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2000