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Relief for Disabled Students

June 14, 2006

For more than 30 years, Creative Living, a nonprofit group in Columbus, Ohio, has provided apartment-style housing for people with severe physically disabilities, most of them students, near Ohio State University's main campus. This winter, the group's director, Marilyn Frank, learned that legislation enacted by Congress in December would make many college students -- including many of those who live in her facilities -- ineligible for subsidized housing through Section 8 of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937.

The change in the policies of the Department of Housing and Urban Development had been pushed through by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in the wake of news reports (notably in the Des Moines Register) that some college athletes on sports scholarships had been taking advantage of the low-income housing program, living in apartments rent free and pocketing their college-awarded housing stipends (or, in a few highly publicized examples, spending the money on video games).

The Harkin measure exempted several groups of students, including those over 23, veterans and married students, but it contained no such exclusion for disabled students. "They either forgot, or maybe people just can't picture disabled people going to college, I guess," Frank said.

Frank began a letter writing campaign that attracted the attention of Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) and Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who in April introduced legislation in their respective chambers to exempt students with disabilities from the new law.

To the dismay of the lawmakers, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that providing such an exemption could cost the government as much as $1 billion over five years -- a conclusion it reached by calculating what would happen if every eligible disabled student sought and qualified for subsidized housing.

Because that price tag made the bill untenable in the current Congressional budget climate, the measure's sponsors narrowed it to exempt only those students who were already living in Section 8 housing as of November 30, 2005, right before the Harkin bill was signed into law.

On Tuesday, the House passed the narrowed legislation ( H.R. 5117). In her statement on the House floor, Pryce said the bill would ensure "that these students don’t have to put away their textbooks or hang up their lab coats, because of something we did. There are enough challenges put in front of individuals with severe physical disabilities -- worrying about a place to call home while they attend college should not be one of them."

Because of the budget issues, the legislation "is not the broad fix to the Section 8 program I originally sought," said Pryce, who promised to continue to push for an overall exemption for students with disabilities. (A spokeswoman for Harkin said he supports the exemption for disabled students.)

Without such a change, Creative Living will be unable to let new residents move into its facilities, Frank said. "This step will help our current residents, but it doesn't solve our future, our mission."

 

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