Is It Time for a Populist Coalition of Low- and Middle-Income Americans for Affordable Housing?

To build a powerful coalition of the poor and middle class, affordable housing advocates must reject a moderate neoliberal approach and choose a progressive populist approach.

populist coalition: view of rundown city housing
Photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D. / CC BY-SA

New York Times reporter Jason DeParle wrote: “Experts dicker over the details, but the housing problems of America’s poor have grown so severe that they lie almost beyond the realm of controversy, with virtually everyone agreeing that the problem is vast and that near-term solutions are so expensive they are politically unimaginable.”

How do we make it politically imaginable?

The 1992 federal elections and the state and city elections in 1993 proved that a middle class worried about the economy, crime, and social issues will dominate American politics for the next several years. Housing activists ignore middle class concerns at their peril. Will the middle class support our struggle to attack the horrible housing problems that a minority (even if a growing one) of the people face? Can the middle class be mobilized to ally with the poor?

As political strategist Kevin Phillips suggested in his recent book, the answer is yes.

An effective, low-income housing program, like an effective health care program, requires a big, bold, universal approach. That, in turn, requires a powerful coalition of the poor and middle class to support it. To build this coalition, affordable housing advocates must reject a moderate neoliberal approach and choose a progressive populist approach. They differ in three respects.

The neoliberal approach accepts the status quo. A populist approach puts the struggle for change at the top of its agenda. Secondly, a neoliberal approach relies on the good will of political liberals and the well-to-do, and seeks solutions based on cool, rational decision-making by the experts. A populist approach relies on mobilizing an alliance with the working class at the grass roots. Thirdly, the neoliberal experts believe it wise to target the poor as a separate population. Progressive populists believe in securing anti-poverty strategies in a broad, solidarity-based agenda.

Housing advocates should choose the building of a populist coalition that includes the support of a significant segment of the less well-to-do middle class.

Danger of Targeting and Isolating the Poor

A key issue that divides a neoliberal from a populist approach is whether low-income housing programs should be targeted for the poor.

Targeting appears to be a compelling idea. In today’s political climate, universal housing programs are too expensive and have little chance of being enacted. Therefore, every available dollar must go to the most needy. Moreover, an alliance with the middle class may result in siphoning off the few available dollars to pay for some kind of middle-class homeownership program. The case for a universal or broadly available policy, however, is more compelling. Targeting and isolating the poor is self defeating. In an effort to protect the poor, low-income targeting isolates the poor in a political wasteland where their needs are ignored and forgotten.

The last three decades of housing policy that targeted programs for the poor resulted in the low-income housing program suffering the largest federal cutbacks compared to almost any other program. In contrast, housing benefits for middle class and rich were spared – indeed expanded. The potential dangers inherent in a low-income/middle-class alliance prove to be less than the present reality of political isolation from the middle class. Historically, political support for New Deal spending programs was built by targeting them broadly – not narrowly – and giving millions of middle-class voters reasons to support programs that were helpful to them but vital to the poor. Historically, programs targeted only for the poor lacked broad support. They become even less popular when targeted for the black poor. Public housing is a good example. As public housing became a program for only the poor it became stigmatized as a welfare program, segregating it from middle-income wage earners and undermining broad public support. Public housing isolated and concentrated the poor, stigmatizing them, resulting in poor administration and underfunding.

Other programs such as the low income housing tax credit, HOME and CDBG formulas that require targeting federal housing funds to the very poor do not help build broad support.

The most popular housing program in American history, the FHA/VA program, helped working class people buy homes with low down payments and low-interest loans. Most importantly, meeting housing needs of the working class with these programs paved the way for Truman and others to push for housing programs for the poor in the cities.

Beginning in the 1960s and accelerating in the 1970s and 1980s, federal housing policy changed course. Housing programs typically meant low-income housing for the very poor – public housing, Section 8 development, rent vouchers, etc. It also meant fair housing that, in the absence of a comprehensive housing and full employment policy, often pitted blacks and working class whites facing declining living standards against each other for housing and neighborhood turf. Poll after poll, however, indicates that voters are receptive to social spending if they believe that the program will offer broad benefits. The national housing agenda must target resources to the poor, but only within a broad enough program that will provide benefits to all who are suffering from the housing crisis. Subsidized and public housing in Canada, England, Holland and other countries, have long been available to the middle class, as well as the poor, and thus get broad political support.

Housing advocates can learn from the healthcare advocates who are organizing for universal national healthcare. By pointing to Canada’s “single payer” model they helped make universal healthcare politically possible.

Organizing and Direct Action

The second important difference between a neoliberal and progressive populist direction lies in the approach to advocacy.

As Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect has pointed out, neoliberalism tends to be uncomfortable with the “passions” of organizing and direct action, preferring a politics based on cool, rational secular decisions by experts. They mistrust mass movements, fearing these as potentially tyrannical and irrational. While there’s good reason to worry about the tyranny of majorities, mass movements are indispensable if the power of wealth is to be offset with the power of people. Without mass movements our nation would not have witnessed programs that provided new opportunities for labor, women, and Blacks.

Organization and direct action are important ingredients in forging a progressive housing policy.

Common Ground

Developing common ground between the poor and not-so-affluent suburbanites who share many of the same problems and concerns with inner-city residents won’t be easy. The dilemmas are in the details. Coalition building is stifled by the reliance on local property taxes to finance municipal government services, especially schools. This discourages middle-class areas from accepting low-income housing. When negotiating a CRA agreement, do you require that investments and credit be directed at low-income, minority census tracts and cap eligible recipients’ families at fifty percent of the median income? Or do you include a broad affordable housing program that can reach the working poor and middle class who live in so-called suburbs ringing the inner cities? The former clearly helps the poor, but without the latter, organizations of working people, like labor unions whose membership seek homeownership opportunities, will have no reason to join the CRA coalition.

Overcoming Dilemmas

Most of these dilemmas can be overcome by a movement steeped in the populist tradition and building grassroots organizations that represent the poor and middle class. Progressive taxation and state level revenue sharing, for example, avoids penalizing communities for having affordable housing. Demands for both census targeting and homeownership opportunities for the working class can easily be included in any set of CRA demands. But reconciling the needs of the poor and middle class can only be done if these two groups are truly represented in the same organization. The type of demands made by an organization reflects the people the organization represents.

Housing activists can use the progressive populists’ perspective and join forces with the lower middle class as well as other movements that seek a more livable society for poor and middle-class Americans: labor unions, senior citizens groups, environmental organizations, women’s groups, civil rights activists, and so on. Housing on its own will rarely be a “win or lose” issue in election campaigns, but it can be made part of a broad progressive agenda/platform that seeks to find common ground among the “bottom” eighty percent of the population.

Housing activists and community organizers often win local low-income housing battles and minor legislative reforms. But they must also keep their eyes on the bigger prize – solving the low-income housing crisis for all the poor, not just the few. This will require winning the larger war for the hearts and minds – and the votes and money – of a large segment of the middle class. The time is now.

Editor’s note: Can a populist coalition around the issue of affordable housing ever develop? Should it? We asked Larry Yates and John Davis to comment on John Atlas’s article.

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