Wednesday, March 21, 2007

House Republicans yesterday forced through an amendment barring convicts from receiving taxpayer housing assistance, attaching it to a Gulf Coast recovery bill, which passed overwhelmingly.

“We must ensure that residents returning home have access to safe, affordable and quality housing,” said Rep. Bobby Jindal, Louisiana Republican, whose measure was added to a bill created to protect public housing ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Some Democrats, including Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, said victims of Katrina were being held to a higher legal standard than other recipients of low-income housing across the nation.

“It’s simply a restatement of existing law,” Mr. Frank said. “Some of my friends appear more concerned with enforcing some existing laws than others.”

Republicans used a procedural move to force through the amendment on a 249-176 vote, with 55 Democrats supporting the bar on convicts.

The measure blocks anyone convicted of drug, domestic violence or sex crimes from being eligible for Housing and Urban Development funds included in the act. Convicted gang members also are barred, but it does give housing preferences to people who perform community service and meet existing work requirements.

The overall Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act, which passed by a vote of 302-125, requires the government to have plans for replacing housing projects damaged by Hurricane Katrina before razing them. It also grants public housing tenants the right to return.

“We need to address the affordable housing crisis in the Gulf region by returning people to their homes,” said Rep. Maxine Waters, the California Democrat who sponsored the bill. “Every person who desires to live in the Gulf region must be given an opportunity to rebuild and to return home.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the city’s housing authority had approved plans to demolish New Orleans’ four largest public-housing complexes and other smaller sites. The August 2005 storm left about 7,500 apartments in a condition not considered worth repairing. The demolitions would have made way for an estimated $681 million worth of mixed-income neighborhood construction.

“To do as HUD has proposed across all public housing in New Orleans is tantamount to forced homelessness,” said Rep. William J. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat, who represents much of New Orleans.

Under the bill, HUD would have to survey people who had lived in public housing and provide housing for any who wanted to return by Aug. 1. Residents would have to declare their intent to return to the city by that date and occupy the units by Oct. 1.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Yesterday’s debate over Mr. Jindal’s motion was especially contentious because Democrats said they did not receive an advance copy of the proposal. Some Democrats booed when Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, Florida Democrat, offered to allow a vote on it.

• This story is based in part on wire service dispatches.

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