When the Burlington City Council met last week to consider a resolution condemning the upcoming budget cuts to the federal housing-assistance program known as Section 8, the public hearing had all the trappings of a theater of the absurd.
Several hundred people showed up for the hearing, some carrying signs and placards that read "Housing is a basic human right" and "America's homeless... the new refugees." City Council members listened intently to the heartfelt and impassioned stories from poor, disabled and elderly Vermonters, many of whom are terrified that they'll end up on the street if they lose their federal housing vouchers. Local landlords, low-income advocates, public housing directors and members of the clergy also voiced their outrage, including one local nun who condemned the Bush administration's hypocrisy on this "pro-life issue."
Paul Dettman, executive director of the Burlington Housing Authority, reminded the council that Section 8 supports around 1700 households in the Burlington area alone and contributes about $13 million to the local economy in direct payments to landlords. Dettman also pointed out that Section 8 recipients are among the most vulnerable members of society. In Burlington, 75 percent are considered "extremely low-income," meaning they earn less than $12,000 a year. One in 10 is elderly, he said, and about four in 10 are mentally or physically disabled. "Any further cuts," Dettman concluded, "will completely cripple our program."
Then there were letters from Vermont's congressional delegation condemning the Bush administration cuts, which are the most drastic ever proposed in the program's 30-year history. Following the speeches, council members voiced their support for the resolution. Phil Fiermonte (P, Ward 3) called the evening's hearing "the most moving testimony I've ever heard" in his six years on the council. Council President Andy Montroll (D, Ward 6) said that "People deserve better than having their safety net pulled out from under them."
In the end, the resolution passed with unanimous support and was sent on to the Vermont Legislature, Congress and the White House. But even with backing of City Council, the mayor, the governor and both houses of the General Assembly, there was also another prevalent, yet unspoken, sentiment in the room: This was a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.