Kevin Gaines and his family got rashes soon after they moved into their new apartment. His son kept getting nosebleeds. The dust made it hard to breathe. When Gaines, a liver transplant recipient, saw yellow mold creeping over the ceiling, he said doctors warned it could cause him to reject his new organ.
After Gaines complained, city inspectors recorded dozens of code violations and city workers even came in to make repairs.
New York City officials warn, however, that budget cuts being pushed by some members of Congress could decimate their housing enforcement efforts, slicing the funds used to pay inspectors, sue landlords and perform emergency repairs. Around the country, the cuts could also shutter community centers, leave rural water outages unchecked, stymie plans for new housing developments and reduce the money available for fixing broken elevators and leaking roofs in the nation's public housing.
Budget proposals by both the Senate and House of Representatives were voted down Wednesday as lawmakers attempt to wrangle a compromise that would prevent the federal government from shutting down when the latest temporary spending measure expires March 18.
Republicans have pushed for deep spending cuts this year to help shrink a deficit that is on pace for a third straight year of topping $1 trillion. Democrats support some cuts but object to the scope of the Republican ideas, arguing that the GOP cuts would unfairly hurt education and support for the poor.
Housing and community development officials across the nation are anxiously awaiting word on whether the 62 percent cut to federal Community Development Block Grants proposed by the Republican-controlled House will remain a part of any budget compromise. President Barack Obama has called for a smaller, 8 percent cut to the grants, while the Senate had pushed not to cut them at all.
New York City is the largest recipient of the $3.9 billion program, which has long been prized by state, county and city officials because of the freedom governments have to decide how the money is spent. In Chicago, some of the money is used to help homeless AIDS patients. In Texas, the funds help teach members of poor border communities how to safely build and repair their own homes.
That spending flexibility has prompted some criticism.
"Although the program's intent is to benefit low- and moderate-income families and communities with the greatest need, in practice these funds have often been used in affluent communities for unnecessary projects," House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said in a statement, adding that she believes there is "waste and abuse in the program."
"In a time of national fiscal crisis, taxpayers simply cannot continue to be on the hook for programs that aren't performing, that contribute to wasteful spending, or that do not provide adequate benefits for those it was designed to serve," she said.
The conservative Heritage Foundation says the block grant program has wasted money on "pork-barrel projects" since its 1974 inception, including for museums. Citizens Against Government Waste, a pro-small-government group, has labeled it ineffective and plagued by fraud. Both groups have advocated abolishing it entirely.
In New York City _ which last fiscal year received $195.2 million from the program _ advocates insist the spending is anything but frivolous, especially at a time when the financial pressures of the housing collapse have led many landlords to reduce repairs or even walk away from their properties.
Most of the money goes to the city's agency of Housing Preservation and Development, where it makes up about half the agency's operating budget and pays for 1,100 staffers including New York's inspectors, maintenance workers and housing lawyers. The funds also pay to relocate and house people forced out of their buildings by hazardous conditions.
The workers declare nearly 500,000 code violations each year, of which about 20 percent are considered immediately hazardous and are fixed by the city. The department says that a program providing emergency repairs in several hundred of the city's very worst buildings will continue because it is mandated by city law, but it may need to be adjusted.
"If these cuts go through, they will literally obliterate many of our housing programs," City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said, warning that if homes are left to crumble, tenants could ultimately be forced out into the street. "We don't want these tenants to be living in apartments where the roof is caving in or where the mold and vermin are ruining their lives."
In Texas, the third-largest recipient of the grants with $79.2 million, most of the money goes to the state's Department of Rural Affairs. There, it's used for wastewater treatment plants, road repair and other fixes to aging facilities, mostly in low- and moderate-income communities, said spokeswoman Julie Kelly. Without the money, some communities could face increased water outages and lose the ability to drink tap water, she said.
"A lot of infrastructure improvements, in the long term, help smaller communities compete for jobs, because it helps them retain their population," she said.
In Los Angeles, which last year received $78 million from the program, a budget cut could sharply curtail the city's efforts to address unemployment, illiteracy and homelessness, said Community Development Department general manager Richard Benbow.
"The gains we've made in moving people to self-sufficiency would be erased or severely reduced," he said. "What you would see is that the poverty population would begin to grow."
A 62 percent cut to block grants would likely force the closure of seven or eight of the department's 21 FamilySource centers, which offer afterschool activities, job-training seminars and other programs in the high-poverty neighborhoods, Benbow said. It would also hit city programs at shelters and transitional housing facilities.
A separate part of the House proposal had sought a 43 percent drop in the $2.5 billion Public Housing Capital Fund, which is used to build public housing and to repair major structural issues, leaky roofs and broken elevators in existing buildings. Obama had called for a cut of 4 percent to the program. The Senate version had maintained current funding.
"This kind of cut could result in significant deterioration of the stock" of government-owned residential properties, which are worth about $150 billion, said Tim Kaiser, executive director of the national Public Housing Authorities Directors Association. He argued the buildings are already facing a roughly $30 billion backlog in repairs and modernization.
In Detroit, the cuts could mean "long-term maintenance issues would not be fixed, replacement of major systems would be delayed and the ability to provide decent, safe and sanitary housing would be jeopardized," said city Housing Commission head Eugene Jones Jr.
Still, officials are prepared for steep cuts, he said. "Most housing authorities have been down this road before," Jones said.
For Kevin Gaines in his Bronx apartment, it can feel that all his calls to the city hot line have accomplished nothing. Indeed, the city's housing officials have limited authority to force repairs for any but the most hazardous problems.
But, nearly two years in, the inspectors' visits have prompted some repairs. The hot water pipe that spurted scalding water into the bathroom is patched, and the piece of ceiling that Gaines says fell on his wife has been painted over. The mold has disappeared behind a fresh patch of paint. And the lead paint _ particularly dangerous for his pregnant wife, her 10-year-old son, and 4-year-old Demire, who all share this one-bedroom apartment _ is no longer peeling.
Gaines says it's not a struggle he can manage on his own.
"I'm too sick to be fighting these people _ trying to get help," he said. "There's about to be five of us here."
Associated Press writers Jacob Adelman in Los Angeles and Corey Williams in Detroit contributed to this report.