- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

Usually when potential buyers seek assistance to get into a house, they have to go to the government or nonprofit, nonsectarian groups set up to funnel federal and state dollars to the consumer.

With a new move at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to level the playing field for faith-based housing groups, consumers will get more options to help them buy a home.

President Bush proposed in December an end to federal regulations that unnecessarily limit religious organizations' access to HUD-administered grant programs. The more than 1,500 faith-based leaders who gathered just before Christmas in Philadelphia to hear the announcement cheered his proposal. The idea is designed to place them on an "equal footing with other community-based organizations that serve low-income Americans and revitalize distressed neighborhoods," according to HUD's Web site (www.hud.gov).

"An organization's faith should not be the yardstick we use to measure its ability to serve families and communities," HUD Secretary Mel Martinez says. "President Bush is making it abundantly clear that he intends to end this form of regulatory discrimination so we can focus on which organizations can most effectively provide housing and services to those who needthem most."

The proposed new rules should amend the practices of the following programs, allowing equal access to funding for faith-based housing groups:

• Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program.

• Home Investment Partnerships program.

• Hope for Homeownership of Single-Family Homes.

• Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA).

• Emergency Shelter Grant (ESG) program.

• Shelter Plus Care.

• Supportive Housing.

• Youthbuild.

For a rundown on what these programs will do for faith-based groups and their constituency, take a look at the HUD site. For certain, no great deed comes without some criticism. Some point out that while the new rules may, indeed, do what the president and Mr. Martinez want them to do, there are also some unwanted results.

The National Congress for Community Economic Development (www.ncced.org) has taken an objective position on this, listing the pros and cons of this new rule and how it may affect positively or adversely consumers and faith-based organizations.

Some of NCCED's concerns are valid and have been aired by leaders from the faith-based groups.

Despite the fear that allowing faith-based organizations access to public funds might be construed as stepping across the boundary of church-state separation, I have to agree that faith-based organizations must be careful when taking a handout from the right hand of government which holds your tax-exempt status in the other hand.

NCCED lists these concerns on its Web site:

• May introduce government interference in the internal affairs of religious groups or government scrutiny of religion's financial records a concern heard across the religious board.

• May result in excessive religious reliance on public money, leading to a weakening of the "prophetic role" of religion, particularly as that may involve criticism of government policy; may cause a decrease in giving to religion by members and other private donors.

• May result in improper religious use of public funds unless each program is closely monitored.

• May imply that government considers faith-based providers superior to secular ones and result in unequal treatment.

• May encourage religious groups with insufficient capacity or competence to enter the social service field, especially risky with regard to "performance-based contracts," as is usually the case with government, which requires upfront money. Also introduces burdensome paperwork and the recurring need to reapply, since government contracts are often of short duration.

I'm excited to see the barriers to public money being broken down so that faith-based organizations can get much-needed funding to help with revitalizing communities throughout the country. Keeping in mind that faith-based groups have a track record of carrying out social programs to the public more cheaply than government groups, the threat to their independence should not be underestimated.

M. Anthony Carr has written about real estate for more than 14 years. Reach him by e-mail ([email protected]).

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