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Housing And The Feds

by Joe Lamport, Dec 14, 2006
 

New York City is not alone in facing a housing crisis. It is a national problem, manifested in a range of problems, from the lack of affordable housing to predatory lending to discrimination. And a national problem deserves a federal solution.

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That was the conclusion of some 20 housing policy experts and advocates at a recent roundtable discussion on housing problems in the city, organized by Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez . They agreed that the timing is right to bring the federal government back into the business of affordable housing: Democrats, who are considered more responsive to housing issues, will soon control both houses of Congress.

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But it’s going to be tough, Velazquez said. There have been 12 years of “disinvestment” in affordable housing. “There is the will, the drive, the commitment and the passion. But these aren’t the only factors.”

Other factors include:

  • A disconnect between local people working on housing issues and Washington, D.C.
  • the federal deficit and the limits it places on new spending programs
  • the bipartisan effort necessary to enact legislation.

The Disconnect

“A national organizing effort – that’s the missing key,” said Irene Baldwin, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. “You’ve seen organizing efforts have a real impact on city housing policy and you’ve seen it affect state housing policy.

“You can do what you can locally, but the problem is in Washington. You need strong national networks that I don’t see out there.”

“That’s an understatement,” agreed Barbara Sard, the director of housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “And it’s not just New York. There are many places where there’s real concern on the local level about affordable housing but it doesn’t translate to Washington.”

Grassroots support is critical if housing is to become a priority, Velazquez said, recalling her previous work to prevent cuts to other programs.

“We were able to activate groups nationwide to block” Bush administration cuts to other programs, she explained. “That’s what we need to do to this. We need to activate all the big advocates nationwide, so they talk to their members of Congress.

“We need to develop this list of emails, telephone numbers and fax numbers from the bottom up. The reality is affordable housing is an issue that is impacting every corner of America.”

Representative-elect Yvette Clarke agreed: “Every other interest group has found a way to communicate, to organize their folks effectively.”

While housing organizers and grassroots activists may be disconnected, however, networks of housing policy experts do exist, noted Victor Bach of the Community Service Society.

“The housing community is together, it has been together for years,” Bach said. “There has been a very strong group of advocates, but they have had little success.”

He listed a variety of groups that work on national housing policy: The National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

What is lacking, Bach said, is the will.

“The will to act on housing compared to other key issues needs to be intensified,” he said. “The question is how to get more capital and commitment to housing. Someone’s got to put it all together and say, ‘Look, we have a national commitment here and we’ve been eroding it for decades.’”

That person, to many, is Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. Already, Sard said, Frank has been speaking frequently about the affordable housing problems facing communities around the country. As the new chair of the House Financial Services Committee, which drafts housing policy legislation, Frank is set to turn his words into action.

But any effort will need people at the grassroots to push it, advocates said. To that end, housing policy groups are welcoming new voices calling for action on affordable housing.

“We would love to get more state partners involved, that’s part of our agenda,” said Nicole Letourneau, communication director at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “We’re always looking to make more connections.”

Advocates and organizers are already coming together, Baldwin said, even if only slowly: “That’s the missing piece. We can all do our separate piece but we really need a national organizing platform to move it forward.”

The affordable housing crisis is evoking more and more anger and frustration in neighborhoods around New York City. At a recent series of town hall meetings organized by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, New Yorkers made that plain. The trick for advocates is translating that frustration into pressure on Congress to draft comprehensive affordable housing legislation.

The Federal Deficit

When organizers and advocates do come together and if they convince Congress that affordable housing is a top priority, they would still face a major obstacle: The federal deficit. It effectively limits the extent of any affordable housing programs Congress members might suggest, Bach said.

“Unless Congress is able to roll back the tax cuts and deal with the deficit, it’s going to be hard for the most powerful voices to address housing,” he said. “The deficit is a major negative in the picture.”

“It is definitely true that the overall budget is going to be a big constraint,” said Sard. “So the challenge then becomes can you find money in some ways that aren’t going to count.”

One way Congress could avoid having to deal with those budget issues is by establishing a national low-income housing trust fund using 5 percent of the profits from the congressionally chartered mortgage lending giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

(The city is also looking at setting up a $300 million affordable housing trust fund in legislation proposed as a compromise on the 421-a property tax exemption program. The Housing First! coalition said $300 million was too little and is pushing for a city trust fund of $1 billion.)

For a national program, advocates said about $5 billion would be needed to develop about 1.5 million affordable housing units, Letourneau said.

“We’ve been pushing for several years for a national housing trust fund that would create a dedicated source of revenue” for affordable housing development, she said. “We think the time is right for this to finally move forward.”

Rep. Frank will introduce the bill in the new Congress, she said./p>

A Bipartisan Approach

When delegates for the Republican National Convention were helping to build a house at a Habitat for Humanity site, protestors showed up, reminding them, “Habitat is great, we still need Section 8!”

“But inside the message was basically the same, we need Section 8,” said Roland Lewis, executive director of Habitat for Humanity and co-chair of the Housing First! coalition that advocates for more affordable housing.

“It really brought home the point that housing is and can be a common ground issue that can cut across party lines and ideological lines,” Lewis said. “If you’re a Republican governor in New Hampshire and you can’t find places for your workforce to live – the teachers and police and firefighters – it’s the same problem we have here in New York City.”

Indeed, when the Bush administration has contemplated cutting Section 8, the federal rent subsidy program, the proposals have provoked an outcry across the country. Mayors – Democrats and Republicans alike – have urged the administration to leave Section 8 alone and the administration has backed down.

Nevertheless, bipartisan efforts often mean forging compromises, Velazquez reminded housing advocates at the roundtable discussion.

“We’re going to be in control, but also we are going to have to work in a bipartisan way,” Velazquez said. “We have to reach out to moderate Republicans.”

Lewis echoed that sentiment, saying affordable housing appeals to interests that cross party and ideological lines.

“You can appeal to people who believe in social justice … and to folks who want better and more business for the companies that drive our economy,” he said. “That’s how it’s a common ground issue.

“It’s not a Republican idea or a Democratic idea that people who play by the rules and work hard should have a decent place to live,” he continued. “That appeals to people across the aisles.”

“For the first time in a long time, the strong but small minority of members of Congress who were setting the agenda is now being replaced by some leadership where decisions will be made by a majority of the members,” Letournea said. “We sort of see this as a new day. That being said any affordable housing initiative that have move forward in the past have always been a bipartisan effort and that will continue.”

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  


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