White House budget proposal jeopardizes city programs in Oklahoma City
Until a few months ago, any time heavy rain was in the forecast, Shirley Cheatham knew she'd need to keep a bucket handy.
The last time she'd had her southeast Oklahoma City home reroofed, the contractor did the job incorrectly, she said. For years, when the rain was heavy, water pooled on the floor of the garage — a problem she knew she couldn't afford to fix.
“All I could do was put a bucket under there," she said.
Last year, Cheatham, now 70, had the problem fixed with money from a federal grant program designed to help cities offer assistance to low-income residents. But now, the future of the grant program and the initiatives it funds are in jeopardy.
Cheatham worked for Lucent Technologies until 2001, when the company shuttered its Oklahoma City plant. After the plant closed, Cheatham worked other jobs until, again, she was laid off. Today, her Social Security benefits keep the bills paid, but don't provide enough to cover the thousands of dollars in repairs her home needed.
Then, a friend told Cheatham about a city program that funded home repairs for low-income residents. Cheatham applied, and before long, roofers were at work stripping her roof to the decking and rebuilding it. The program also paid for new siding and a new fence.
The city initiative that pays for home repairs for residents like Cheatham is funded through the Community Development Block Grant program, a federal program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The program gives money to cities across the country to address a wide range of community development needs.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump released a budget blueprint calling for $54 billion in cuts to federal agencies. Among other cuts, the budget proposal calls for eliminating the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant program.
Mayors of cities nationwide have raised alarms about the proposal. Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, who also serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said the grant program has been a key resource for city governments.
"Community Development Block Grants are the only federal funding source that gives city leaders some discretion in how the money is spent, and mayors have used them to leverage private investment, create affordable housing, spur economic development, rebuild infrastructure and provide services that strengthen metro areas," Cornett said in a statement.
Chris Varga, community development division manager for the Oklahoma City Planning Department, said the city receives about $4.3 million from the program each year. Varga's department uses that money to fund programs that offer assistance to low-income residents.
Housing rehabilitation represents one of the department's bigger efforts, Varga said. The program helps low-income homeowners with roof, window, siding and plumbing repairs. It also pays to install storm shelters and provides emergency repairs, he said.
The federal grant program also funds the city's Strong Neighborhoods Initiative, which aims to reduce crime and enhance the quality of life in three neighborhoods — Classen Ten Penn, Classen's North Highland Parked and Culbertson's East Highland.
During the 2015-2016 fiscal year, 29,790 Oklahoma City residents benefited from Community Development Block Grant Program grants managed by the city of Oklahoma City, records show. Many of those programs would face an uncertain future if the federal grant program were eliminated, Varga said.
“I would think a lot of these programs would simply cease," he said.
Trump Administration officials say the administration can't justify spending $3 billion on programs that don't demonstrate success. During a March 16 press briefing, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said the program funds programs that haven't shown results.
"We can't do that anymore," Mulvaney said. "We can't spend money on programs just because they sound good."
Dan Straughan, executive director of the nonprofit Homeless Alliance, disagrees. The organization has used grant money to fund a number of projects, including the construction of its WestTown Resource Center, a homeless outreach facility that brings together more than a dozen service providers at a single site.
The nonprofit began its capital campaign to fund the construction of the resource center and an adjacent day shelter in 2008, just before a mortgage crisis threw the national economy into recession. Traditional sources of funding like corporate donations and foundation grants dried up.
So, with permission from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, city officials used $5 million in grant money to get the project off the ground. That grant money allowed the nonprofit to go to private donors to raise money for expenses the grant wouldn't cover, like furniture, equipment and operating expenses.
“It absolutely would not have gotten done without [the grant program]," Straughan said.
Since then, the Homeless Alliance has used money from the grant program to partially fund the construction of the WestTown Apartments, a 20-unit center located next to the nonprofit's resource center. The facility is designed to house homeless veterans and chronically homeless people who wouldn't fare well in a single-bedroom apartment or other housing situations.
Critics say grant dollars don't go to benefit the lowest-income residents. In a report released last year, The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, called for the grants to be eliminated, saying the programs they fund "have been fraught with waste and abuse for decades."
"After more than 40 years — and more than $100 billion of [grants] — it is virtually impossible to argue they have revived communities and increased economic growth in distressed neighborhoods," the authors wrote. "These programs should be eliminated."
But Cheatham, the southeast Oklahoma City homeowner, said she'd never have been able to afford the thousands of dollars in home repairs without grant funding. If that money weren't available, she'd likely still have the same leaky roof and paper-thin siding that she had a year ago, she said.
“I wouldn't know what to do. I really wouldn't, because I couldn't borrow that kind of money," she said. “I wouldn't know what to do or who to call.”