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House Democrats aren’t pleased with the Trump administration's proposal to make housing and emergency shelter less accessible — and perhaps out of reach entirely — for undocumented and transgender people. But despite an outcry on the left against those efforts, they can’t do much to stop them.
Early Wednesday evening, the House Financial Services Committee voted along party lines to advance two bills that would block two regulatory changes proposed last month by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
One of HUD’s proposed regulations would retroactively make households of mixed immigration statuses ineligible for federal housing assistance. The other would effectively allow homeless shelter providers to deny services to transgender people.
Despite clashing with their Republican counterparts, Democrats on the House committee ultimately eked out a victory and voted to send the bills to the floor for a full vote. At one point, Virginia Democrat Rep. Jennifer Wexton even called comments by the opposition “prejudiced.”
Though the bills passed their first legislative hurdle, they’ll likely stall there. Senate Democrats have not introduced sister legislation. A spokesperson for Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — who’s from New York, where many of the affected immigrant families are located — did not respond to VICE News’s questions about whether the Senate would take up similar measures. And chances are low that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, would whip support the effort even if they did.
Under one of HUD’s proposed regulatory changes, which published in the federal register on May 10, families with mixed immigration statuses –– those with one or more members who don’t have certain residency documents –– would stop receiving federal housing assistance and face eviction from their units.
A regulatory impact analysis of the proposal published by HUD last month shows that the measure could displace as many as 25,000 families across the country from their homes. That includes about 55,000 children who could become homeless or separated from their families under the proposal. In addition to New York, the overwhelming majority of those families are clustered in Texas and California, according to HUD.
But the Keeping Families Together Act of 2019, sponsored by Democratic Texas Rep. Sylvia Garcia, whose district includes parts of the greater Houston area, would block HUD from implementing the regulation. (The agency is halfway through the 60 day period in which it can solicit comments from the public about the proposed change.)
“Rather than helping our immigration enforcement efforts, this cruel and shameless proposed rule will significantly harm already impoverished children and pass on significant costs to taxpayers,” Garcia said in a statement Wednesday. Committee chair Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California, referred to HUD’s proposal as “shameful, harmful.”
Wednesday’s vote followed a sustained wave of criticism by congressional Democrats, whose partial delegations in New York and California each sent open letters to HUD Secretary Ben Carson last month. The correspondances excoriated his agency for what California Democrats call the Trump administration’s “efforts to separate American families and intimidate immigrant communities.”
"This cruel and shameless proposed rule will significantly harm already impoverished children."
Carson also sparred with Garcia — whose district includes parts of the greater Houston area — on Twitter last month about the proposed regulation change. He asked her whether she thinks the “more than 100,000 American citizens waiting for public housing in Houston, TX … should continue to wait while people here illegally are taking their space?” (A spokesperson for HUD declined to comment on congressional opposition to the measures and directed VICE News to press releases the agency published last month.)
Should Carson get his way, HUD estimates it will also have to pay between $3.3 and $4.4 million in eviction costs to enforce the new procedure.
Because HUD would replace mixed-eligibility families with fully eligible families, the agency would also have to pay a higher per-family subsidy cost, to the tune of an additional $193 million to $227 million per year, according to the agency. (HUD currently prorates subsidies for mixed eligibility households by excluding members who declare themselves ineligible.)
HUD also notes that, considering the agency’s ever-shrinking budget, the “likeliest scenario” for implementing the regulation would “be that HUD would have to reduce the quantity and quality of assisted housing in response to higher costs.”
Consequently, agency staff predicts, it will fund fewer housing vouchers. HUD says it will also have less money to make repairs to its crumbling stock of public housing, which faces a capital needs backlog of $70 billion across the country.
“For public housing, this would have an impact on the quality of service, e.g., maintenance of the units and possibly deterioration of the units that could lead to vacancy,” HUD’s impact analysis says of its proposal. A spokesperson for HUD declined to comment on the agency’s implementation strategy for the new regulation, if any exists.
Texas Rep. Andy Barr, among the Republican committee members who opposed Garcia’s bill, referred to the immigrants affected by HUD’s proposal as “ineligible people rigging the system” by taking housing away from American citizens.
“License to discriminate”
House Democrats also issued a separate rebuke to HUD Wednesday. The financial services committee approved a bill, introduced by freshman Virginia Democrat Jennifer Wexton, that would block HUD-funded shelter providers from being able to determine someone’s gender — which could allow them to deny services to trans people at facilities that cater to specific genders.
“It’s that flexibility to discriminate that this [bill] is prohibiting,” Wexton said in the House on Wednesday. “These are folks that are in the most vulnerable time in their lives and need to be assured they’re safe.”
Wexton told VICE News that the HUD proposal “creates a license to discriminate in taxpayer-funded housing.” She added that her office is aware of at least one instance already in her district, which includes swaths of rural northern Virginia, where a low-barrier emergency homeless shelter denied a bed to a transgender woman. The woman “suffered harassment” from staff at the shelter, which receives funding from HUD, Wexton said.
Wexton also told VICE News that she has not spoken to colleagues in the Senate about introducing a similar bill there.
HUD has justified making changes to the Equal Access rule by citing a single case in Fresno, California, where a group of homeless women complained in May of 2018 that shelter staff gave a trans woman access to shelter.
Republican committee members, including ranking Texas Rep. Patrick McHenry, pushed back on Wexton’s bill. “I believe it may be premature,” McHenry said during a Wednesday hearing. “Let’s see what HUD says, let’s see what they propose.”
Barry Loudermilk, a Republican from Georgia, subsequently argued that female victims of sex trafficking in cities like Atlanta are “terrified of men.”
“A lot of time I cannot visit the women in their shelters,” Loudermilk said. “We have seen from numerous account that [there are] preoperative transgender men being forced into these shelters, and it’s caused problems.” (Carson himself has made similar comments.)
Loudermilk did not cite any specific accounts.
Cover image: In this photo taken June 18, 2015, Ro Brown, 23, poses for a photograph as he waits in a Greyhound bus station in Miami, with his wife, not pictured, for a bus to Macon, Ga. Brown, who identifies as a transgender male, has been homeless for six years, and has not yet told his family about his gender identity. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)