Most of us feel today that this country and its communities are in serious trouble. We don’t, however, see anyone doing anything ambitious enough to matter. What you are about to read proposes one bold and positive step that you can support. It is a proposal that does not increase the deficit, or increase the burden on the average taxpayer.
The Housing Justice Campaign offers a practical solution to one major part of the crisis in our communities. In addition to concretely helping millions of Americans in need, victory for the campaign means that we still have some control over what matters in our society. It will mean that there is a low point that we, as a people, refuse to sink to even in a time when mean-spiritedness is being marketed like breakfast cereal. Join us and take a step for housing justice.
The United States of America is uneasy these days. Slick political campaigns play on distrust and uneasiness and are more effective then ever. The media has lost credibility, and yet the daily buzz is around the stories it plays up–O.J. Simpson, Tonya Harding, Saddam Hussein.
As always, deep thinkers seek abstract reasons for the current state of affairs. They cite changes in values, in philosophies, in technology, as all making a difference.
- “Interviews with shelter directors, social workers, and homeless experts point to a nationwide trend. ‘Our growth area isn’t alcoholics or the mentally ill. It’s working families who can’t afford rent on the wages they earn,’ says Sister Nancy Crowder, head of the Holy Family Shelter in Indianapolis…. According to a Census Bureau report in March, almost one in five Americans work full time but earns a wage below the poverty line of $13,091 for a family of four. This represents a 50 percent increase since 1979 and a trend the normally muted agency termed ‘astounding’.”
A Frightening Insecurity is Growing
There is, however, a more immediate and practical kind of insecurity in the land. Real incomes are stagnant. Children’s careers and incomes are not surpassing those of their parents. Above all, a shocking minority is growing, a minority of people who are not just poor, not just without work, but who have no homes, no substantial possessions, and no refuge from the mean streets.
We all know that it can happen to us. We know, even if we deny it, that it happens to people who work hard, who have families that care, who have friends. We know that millions of us are only a paycheck or two away from homelessness. Even if many homeless people have made one or two serious mistakes–quitting a good job, letting drinking or drugs get out of hand–we know that each of us can make a mistake. It’s frightening to know that the cost of making one mistake can be total vulnerability.
Some of us are ashamed. Some of us are outraged. Some of us are scared. Some of us cling to our own virtue, and separate ourselves from “those people.” But, we are all affected. We all know that homelessness means much more than the occasional inconvenience of being asked for a quarter. It is a fundamental statement about the society in which we live.
Homelessness is not just a condition of people in the streets and shelters, any more than mass unemployment is only a problem for those without jobs. When we understand that it is possible for the elderly, families with children, and people ready to settle into midlife to end up in this state, we know we are all threatened.
It seems there is no hope. It seems as though no one is working to make sure there are enough shelters. This is a social condition. It appears that we are going to live with this condition for the rest of our lives, and pass on this legacy of indifference to our children and grandchildren. They will never know a time when people weren’t begging on the street corners of the greatest cities in the United States of America.
How can we restore hope in this country if we can’t even provide the basic necessities of life to those who have served in our armed forces; to those who work hard every day at menial jobs; to those raising children; to those who have retired from a hard life of labor?
The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), joined by hundreds of local, state, and national organizations, asks you to take a step for hope. National groups such as the Presbyterian Church USA, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Council of La Raza, NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, and the Center for Community Change have already joined the campaign. We ask you to do the same.
The following information explains why the Housing Justice Campaign is the right thing to do, and why this is the right time to do it. An endorsement form follows this article. Distribute the endorsement form to as many local and state housing organizations, community groups, religious congregations, unions, civic associations, and other groups as you can. Then, send the endorsements to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
- “There are tax provisions that function in the same way as entitlements. They don’t show up in the same way in the budget, but they have the same kinds of fiscal and social effects…. The mortgage interest deduction, for example, costs the Treasury more than $50 billion a year, and is the largest single Federal housing program. The benefits are conferred as automatically each year as if they were Social Security checks.”
– The Washington Post, June 19, 1994
An Ocean of Housing Need
Even those who work with this crisis every day often do not realize the extent and gravity of our low-income housing needs. Despite 50 years of housing programs, data shows that for every very low-income household now living in subsidized housing, another very low-income renter household not only has no housing subsidy, but has what is officially known as a worst case housing need. These households are either paying more than half of their incomes for housing costs, living in seriously substandard housing, or both.
In 1990, the Senate Appropriations Committee asked the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to report annually on worst case housing needs and progress made toward meeting them. HUD’s 1991 study found that 5.9 million renter households and another 3.1 million owner households pay more than half their incomes for housing or live in seriously inadequate units. Of these nine million households, 5.1 million were renters with incomes below 50 percent of the area median income. These are people who do not receive housing assistance because the funding is simply not available to meet the need.
To have enough units to meet just the current worst case needs would require more than doubling the present number of 4.8 million HUD-subsidized low-income housing units. As the name implies, worst case needs are only the most pressing part of the problem. For every very low-income household with a worst case need, there are four other low or moderate income households with serious housing needs.
The 1990 census shows us that households with severe housing cost burdens – those paying more than half their incomes for housing – are not high income people. They are overwhelmingly people at the bottom of the income scale with little disposable income to begin with. In addition, disproportionately concentrated between extremely low and very low-income households, are minority households that are also far less likely to be homeowners.
- “The housing industry argues that the homeowner tax break is the linchpin of the American Dream. This is nonsense. Neither Canada nor Australia has a homeowner deduction, and their homeownership rate (some two-thirds of all households) is about the same as ours. And during the past decade, the rate of homeownership has steadily declined, especially for young families.”
– Reforming the Mansion Subsidy, Peter Dreier and John Atlas, in The Nation, May 2, 1994.
Funds for the poor, and how they have declined
Budget authority for federal low-income housing programs peaked in 1978 at $66.6 billion, after adjusting for inflation. This was 6.4 percent of all federal budget authority. Moreover, 80 percent of this amount was spent providing additional subsidized units or households. That is, adding to the number of households that received assistance. In 1978, total outlays for low-income housing assistance amounted to $7.8 billion.
The FY95 federal budget called for only $20.7 billion in low income housing budget authority. This amount is projected to be 1.4 percent of total federal budget authority. Worse, only 30 percent of this amount will be used for expanding the number of households receiving assistance. The 1978 budget funded 401,800 units through HUD and Farmers Home programs. The 1995 budget is expected to fund only 153,000 additional units. In short, as low-income housing needs have grown, we have done less as a society to meet them.
Funds for the wealthy, and how they have increased
Tax expenditures, which primarily benefit upper income people, are a different story. They continue to grow without restraint. In 1978, housing-related tax expenditures cost the Treasury $33.4 billion. In contrast, FY95 tax expenditures are estimated at $98.7 billion. They predominantly benefit households in the top fifth of the income distribution, who get an estimated 61 percent of all housing benefits, compared to only 18 percent for the bottom fifth. Only 19 percent of the households in the bottom fifth – about 3.7 million in all – get federal housing assistance. In comparison, only 87 percent of the households in the top fifth get homeowner deductions.
The Cost of Neglect
These costs reflect what we do. There are also costs, however, for what we fail to do. A 1994 report by a homeless provider group in Chicago estimates that one homeless person who experiences one hospitalization followed by emergency shelter and out-patient care can cost taxpayers between $22,000 and $32,000 in one year. Forty thousand such cases would cost more than $1 billion.
Other costs include dealing with an increase in petty crime due to homelessness. Security and maintenance costs rise in relation to homelessness because public space is being used for purposes for which it was not intended. Vulnerability to things such as assault, malnutrition, and freezing temperatures increases for a large segment of the population. The public health costs of homelessness include the national scandal that tuberculosis, once nearly eradicated, is now on the increase in the United States.
- Responding to the biblical command to house the poor, the Presbyterian Church (USA)has a long history of advocacy in relation to national housing policy…The housing crisis goes beyond statistics, even beyond lack of funding. It is a moral crisis that requires a response of prophetic social action and systemic change.”
– Stewardship of Public Life, Washington Office, Presbyterian Church (USA), 2nd Quarter, 1994
What NLIHC Proposes
Advocates who work daily to meet the housing needs of low-income and homeless people developed the Housing Justice Campaign. The campaign proposes concrete ways in which the right to housing can be established. The National Low Income Housing Coalition is working for a right that exists not only on paper, but can be exercised in a practical way in every community in this country.
I. Turn the federal housing subsidy system right side up
The way in which the federal government intervenes in the housing market needs repair. It reflects a tangle of legislation and policy that has grown since the Civil War without being planned or analyzed. It is a system that rewards the wealthiest homeowners, does little or nothing to help struggling homeowners, and offers millions of the poorest Americans only a spot on a waiting list. As Cushing N. Dolbeare, founder of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, stated in a 1991 National Journal article, “if we repealed [our housing policy] and started with a clean slate, [and] then wrote down what we have now, not only would it never pass Congress, no member of Congress would dare introduce it.”
Under the current system, low-income people face desperate choices between good nutrition, health care, and a home. They are forced to wait, sometimes for years, for assistance. They have to provide detailed personal information about everyone in the household merely to show they qualify for housing subsidies. Often, they need to apply in multiple locations and meet different program rules.
Resources are so limited that those who are not in especially dire straits – such as displaced from their homes or living in shelters – may never get assistance. When and if help finally arrives, low-income people still have to pay 30 percent of their incomes for rent. At the same time, millions of Americans pay less than 25 percent of their income to own single-family homes.
Federal spending for low-income housing programs, often stigmatized as “budget-busters,” is running less than $25 billion annually, or about 1.5 percent of total federal outlays. Meanwhile, the federal government will lose nearly $100 billion next year by providing an automatic subsidy for any homeowner electing to take the mortgage interest deduction.
The higher the homeowner’s income, and the larger the mortgage, the greater the benefit – up to a cap of $1 million in outstanding principal. But many homeowners get little or nothing from this subsidy. Eighty-three percent of homeowners with incomes over $90,000 benefit from this subsidy. At the same time, only 32 percent of homeowners earning between $20,000 and $40,000 benefit, and a mere 10 percent of homeowners between $10,000 and $20,000 benefit from these deductions. Renters, of course, get no benefit from homeowner deductions.
The homeowners who do benefit from this this tax break need only to fill out a form to receive it. Everybody who qualifies gets the benefit. No one has to wait until next year. No one has to show a special need. Most amazing of all, in a climate when even the Pentagon is talking about reducing expenditures, this subsidy and other related homeowner deductions account for nearly 30 percent of the annual deficit.
This has not missed the attention of at least some budget-cutters. The Concord Coalition, a bipartisan anti-deficit group led by former Senators Warren Rudman and Paul Tsongas, has proposed eliminating the mortgage interest deduction to reduce the deficit. Early in the Clinton Administration, Secretary of Labor Robert Reich floated a trial balloon stating that the deduction should be modified to pay for job programs. More recently, a memo leaked from within the Clinton Administration mentioned limits on mortgage deductions for second homes and limits on the amount that can be claimed.
Once politically untouchable, this tax expenditure is now under scrutiny. The idea of significant modifications to this deduction has been discussed in Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. Most recently, the Bi-Partisan Commission on Entitlements and Tax Expenditures, chaired by Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Senator John Danforth (R-MO) issued its report. The commission proposes either placing strict limits on the mortgage interest deduction or totally eliminating the subsidy.
Our approach is to reinvent the housing system by applying simple fairness. We propose that funds derived from placing limits on homeowner deductions continue to be used for housing. Something that is a fundamentally important human need, social good, and economic benefit.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition proposes reducing the deductions of higher income homeowners by an amount they can spare without harming them or the economy. By limiting the deduction, most homeowners would pay no more in taxes, some as little as $600 a year, and somewhat more would be expected from wealthier people. The savings would then be shifted to a Federal Housing Trust Fund that genuinely helps those households that have desperate housing problems, including the homeless, low-income renters and low-income homeowners.
II. Establish a housing assistance program that provides resources appropriate to rural, suburban and urban communities
The funds from the Federal Housing Trust Fund would be used first to make sure that every household in need has a home. Many, perhaps most, of these households will find homes in the private housing market. Sometimes, housing must be built. The Federal Housing Trust Fund would cover the cost of new construction and rehab programs. In addition, homeownership opportunities would be made available to very low-income people.
Such a program would use many of the resources we already have. First, it would use our private housing market, already providing good quality housing to most Americans. It would also call on the local and state government agencies that have grown in efficiency and scope during the federal withdrawal from housing over the last 15 years. The network of nonprofit community-based providers that has grown so vigorously during the same period would also be involved. Finally, it would provide HUD, for the first time since its founding, with resources adequate to meet its task.
Those who are fighting homelessness on the front lines are asking for this type of resource. Recently, the Chicago Lakefront Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Corporation issued a report that boldly stated, “Many people consider homelessness a problem too big and expensive to solve. It’s not.” The staff at Lakefront SRO have worked for years to meet the needs of homeless people. They have built and managed affordable housing and social services for 455 very poor and formerly homeless adults in the inner city of Chicago.
Lakefront’s report characterizes money spent on emergency shelter, hospitalization, out-patient treatment, and prison costs, as “money spent just to keep that expensive revolving door spinning.” They know supportive housing works, because “once people come to Lakefront SRO, the struggle for daily survival is won, and they can concentrate on addressing the problem that made them homeless in the first place.” Hundreds of groups like Lakefront SRO all over the country lack the resources to do the job they are ready to do.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition is determined to make the case for these groups, and for the people they serve. We are committed to pushing for the resources needed to do the job. At the same time, to avoid the worst mistakes of the past, NLIHC insists on strong citizen oversight as a crucial component of the Federal Housing Trust Fund. Citizens, particularly those who need this program to work, are the best resource to avoid abuses and inefficiency. Under the trust fund, citizens would have real power. This includes the power to take legal action to ensure that the trust fund operates according to its original goals.
III. Aggressively and creatively oppose discrimination, segregation, and other barriers to housing opportunity
Nearly a century after the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction, racial segregation in housing was the law of the land. Following World War II, when suburbs started to flourish, federal financing through the FHA and VA programs was available, as a matter of policy, only to racially segregated neighborhoods. While the federal government has reversed this policy, many local governments still reinforce racial separation in housing through zoning, lot-size requirements, and so on. Until the passage of community reinvestment legislation in the 1970s, financial institutions “red-lined” minority and low-income neighborhoods with impunity, making those neighborhoods less livable. In a Catch-22 situation, practices like steering and block-busting were keeping even prosperous people of color from escaping segregated neighborhoods. Finally, some forms of discrimination, such as policies against families with children or the disabled, have only been outlawed in the last decade.
We cannot provide housing opportunities, but tell the recipients they can only live in certain places. It is wrong. It also reinforces the perception that certain neighborhoods are “bad” or “undesirable,” making it harder to maintain the quality of those communities. low-income people, like all Americans, must have the choice of where they live. Some will choose to remain in, or move to, neighborhoods that are largely low-income. Others will choose to move to suburban areas or other areas that have excluded them in the past.
The key to dismantling discrimination is to support choice. The myths that the poor somehow contaminate other neighborhoods were disproved long ago. Like most of us, however, low-income people need a support system to take on something new and difficult. Moving to an unfamiliar neighborhood, organizing to make improvements in their current neighborhood, or other such actions require assistance. In addition, they need support to break through, at times, very subtle discriminatory barriers. Independent nonprofit organizations that are sensitive to the local scene provide the best kind of support.
The Federal Housing Trust Fund would support such organizations. It would help them to carry out activities like counseling and educating about tenant or homeowner responsibilities and rights. The program would also educate landlords, neighborhood leaders, and local officials. The trust fund would also provide for fair-housing testing, litigation, and other barrier-breaking activities if necessary.
IV. Fund existing housing programs at authorized levels
Existing subsidized housing should be preserved to the greatest degree possible. Millions of households throughout the nation are living in affordable housing provided by the federal housing programs of the last half century. The widespread perception that all past programs are failures is clearly wrong, and is largely a result of some politicians and journalists highlighting some of the most spectacular failures. When was the last time you heard, “subsidized housing projects provide homes for families efficiently in harmony with neighborhood – film at eleven!” In fact, the most vociferous critics of current programs pass by successful examples of subsidized housing every day without knowing it.
Much of the housing built or supported by existing programs is meeting genuine needs. It is also doing so in a way that is familiar to both providers and recipients. It would be disruptive to end all the programs now working in a community and replace them immediately with programs coming out of the Federal Housing Trust Fund. In the past, changes occurring every few years made it easier for sophisticated users, like politically connected developers and large metropolitan areas, to reap benefits from programs. Programs that often changed by the time community groups, rural providers, and others also learned how they worked.
Over time, it will probably make sense to consolidate programs. This would accelerate the trend, already begun with the National Affordable Housing Act of 1990, toward more local flexibility and toward coordination of activities. However, the genuine accomplishments of the last 50 years should not be eroded.
Parade, the popular Sunday newspaper supplement, commissioned a national survey for its January 1994 article, “What Americans Say About the Homeless.” Most respondents, saying they felt sadness (78 percent) or sympathy (76 percent), felt that “something could be done to significantly reduce homelessness in America” (76 percent). Also, “of respondents earning less than $20,000 a year, 52 percent say they could imagine themselves becoming homeless.” Sixty-three percent of Parade’s respondents said “government does not spend enough on the homeless,” while 65 percent said “the government should build housing for the homeless.”
From a Good Idea to National Policy – How Do We Get There?
The tragic neglect of housing needs by the federal government for the last 15 years has had one positive result. Many more Americans are knowledgeable and deeply concerned about housing and homelessness than in 1979. Organizations like the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, are all relatively new organizations. These groups represent a large national constituency of activists and service providers. Groups from ACORN to the YWCA have increased their emphasis on housing.
Housing and homelessness are major areas of specialization for social workers, academics, and organizers. In many cases, this is a result of a commitment to doing something about a highly visible human need. Thousands of religious congregations have made an ongoing commitment to help people with housing needs, if only by serving in a soup line once a month. Perhaps most important are the neighborhood and community activists who have fought for housing, block by block, opposing displacement and fighting for resources to keep and expand the affordable housing supply. These hundreds of thousands of people represent a vast untapped civic resource. A resource with the power to not only reverse housing neglect but to ensure that the shame of the 1980s and 1990s is never repeated in this country.
Who Are Our Opponents?
The main organized opposition will come from the National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of Realtors. Our response should be twofold. First, we can argue that in the current frenzy for deficit reduction, it is quite likely that the mortgage interest deduction will be limited, if not ended, in the next few years anyway. At least our proposal will bring funds to housing for development and management expenditures. In fact, housing assistance that reaches everyone will provide millions of households with the stability that makes it at least conceivable to move up into the conventional housing market. On the other hand, we will simply need to confront them on the basis of equity, and state that the short-term interests of their profession cannot be put higher than the needs of the homeless and near-homeless.
Our secondary opposition will be that which we face as a matter of course. It will come from those who want to reduce spending for low-income people no matter what. Polls show that the American people do not agree with this position. As with other areas where special interests are standing in the way of the majority position – gun control, campaign spending, and health care – we will simply have to organize harder and keep up the fight.
- “I saw my first homeless person when I was five. For a boy so young was like a knife into the stomach. The first dull stab of reality in his America. It frightened me then and it frightens me still; has stirred a sadness that will forever linger in the deep places of my heart. And even now the memory of his eye stalks my dreams like some deathless shadow, tracks me through the passing years and will forever cause me to wonder.”–
David Ogle, Street Sheet, October 1994, published by the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco.
How did NLIHC develop the Federal Housing Trust Fund proposal?
The National Low Income Housing Coalition has been arguing against the upside-down housing subsidy system for more than a decade. Cushing N. Dolbeare has used this concept as a teaching tool to clarify how our housing system works.
In the meantime, low-income housing programs, once a bipartisan commitment, came under a devastating attack during the Reagan years. Effective lobbying, while it prevented many of the more frightening proposals from taking effect, was no substitute for a political consensus of support. In addition, housing programs suffered from the long “pipeline” between congressional action and actual results in the community. Low-income housing programs took cuts that never would have been possible in the case of food stamps or other immediate benefits. Housing cuts result in no immediate and visible victim. Instead, they kill an opportunity that would have emerged for some household, someday.
It became clear to housing advocates that only the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Americans concerned about housing would make a real difference. This was not something, frankly, that we knew how to do. The low-income housing movement has fought most of its battles in the halls of Congress, and it had been years since housing had been a rallying cry in the streets. So when the National Low Income Housing Coalition decided to reach out to a national constituency, we began a learning process. Parts of the learning process included our Two Cents for Housing Campaign, which helped us to learn about the many people of goodwill that are ready to work hard for housing needs. Another part was the 1989 Housing Now! march, which also demonstrated massive support. We are not alone in our quest to make the political system work for housing needs.
Who Are Our Allies?
A powerful movement, overlapping ours but not identical, has grown among those who are or were homeless and among the people who work with them every day. This movement, as expressed visibly through the figure of Mitch Snyder, was really the impetus for the Housing Now! march. It has continued to keep pressure on both Congress and the Administration, whether under Reagan, Bush or Clinton.
Homeless and formerly homeless people have taken over buildings, have pushed hard for their right to vote, and have made their needs known. The McKinney programs, which have created a partial safety net for homeless people who had no protection at all, are one of the victories of this movement. Their battle continues every day on our streets. However, many of the homeless, formerly homeless and providers to the homeless are so intensely busy just meeting daily needs that they have a hard time maintaining the movement.
Housing needs are not limited to the homeless. A constituency that distinguished itself through sophisticated organizing in the 1980s are the residents of subsidized housing. While their housing ranges from sound and safe to squalid disrepair, these residents found that they share both a fear that they will lose what little they have and an ambition to exercise control over their own lives. Whether in public housing – owned by local quasi-governmental public housing authorities – or in privately owned assisted housing, these residents have organized themselves. This was done first locally, and then in nationwide networks like the National Tenants Organization, the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, and the National Association of Resident Management Corporations. HUD Secretaries Jack Kemp and Henry Cisneros have shared a healthy respect and support for these movements. Neither, however, has provided the funding and oversight necessary to ensure that these households get what they need and deserve in their struggle for a decent life.
In some cases, these tenants have met their own goals, raising healthy and successful families and retiring from productive jobs. They fight on to ensure that the same resources that saved them will be available to others who need subsidized housing. In some cases, these residents are organizing to become owners of their own complexes. In other cases, they seek to participate in management, or at least to get management to be responsive to basic demands. Their fight is central to the Housing Justice Campaign. They show us the way to subsidized housing that genuinely serves those who live in it to become effective, independent, and productive.
Another movement also emerged during the 1980s or, better stated, 50 more movements. During the 1980s, a coalition of groups was formed to take on homeless and housing issues in nearly every state. Starting with little knowledge of the process, and often having previously depended on federal funds, local housing and service providers learned to become advocates in their states. At the end of the 1970s, only a handful of states spent any tax revenue on housing programs. By the end of the 1980s, however, a majority did. In many cases, they did so through a housing trust fund, with funds from some dedicated source of revenue going automatically into programs to provide housing.
In addition, faith groups became an integral part of these efforts. During the 1980s, faith groups formed housing development corporations, and lent capital at below market rates or with no interest. They built thousands of units of housing, provided shelter, and food and services in their buildings and through subsidiary social service groups. People of faith reminded their congregations that their obligation to the poor and the homeless is as old and as sacred as religious practice itself. Congregations often began by taking on service projects. Realizing that those projects did not alter the basic housing problem in their communities, they moved to a more prophetic role. They challenged the institutional barriers that face the individuals they have tried to help.
While our campuses are often branded with the label of apathy, opportunities for community involvement abound. College students and recent graduates who maintain campus connections in many cities are on the front line of direct service to the poor and to the homeless. Frequently, in the span of four years, concerned students move from a role of volunteer service – ladling soup or cutting sandwiches – to a role of organizing campus education programs and advocacy. Some choose to dedicate themselves to work in the housing movement. These young people constitute the next wave of leadership for organizations like the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the National Coalition for the Homeless. Many of our current leaders followed a similar path by carrying forward the torch of the civil rights movement and other social movements of the 1960s.
It is impossible to list all the groups that have played a role in the formulation and leadership of the Housing Justice Campaign. The role of people of color and those involved in women’s organizations cannot be discounted. Racism and sexism are most devastating when people facing these prejudices lack the protection of a home. Those who bewail the state of the black family might want to begin by ensuring that each one of those families has a decent home and that overcrowding, high rents, and poor conditions cease being a major source of stress. Those who are concerned about “family values” might want to support the domestic abuse shelters that provide a fundamental family value – a respite from violence and abusive control.
People who are disabled or frail are characterized as having “special needs.” The reality is that most of them seek what most of the rest of us already have. They want a home that provides a nurturing base from which to participate actively in our community. For those who are healthy at the present time, especially children, the presence of lead in the home and of toxins at or near home sites, constitutes a health threat. There is no reason to require anyone in this country to live in housing that limits their ability to function up to their capacity, or that causes them physical harm.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition urges people of all backgrounds to become active in the Housing Justice Campaign.
- “For traditional reasons having as much to do with turf as anything else, the tax and spending sides of federal housing policy are separately decided. The process is irrational – and the result is wrong. What they ought to do is trim the interest deduction from the top and use the proceeds to support the poor. No politician would make a speech in favor of the opposite arrangement. But that’s what they have produced.”
– The Washington Post, January 10, 1994
Turn your energy toward education
The first responsibility of housing advocates is to ensure that in-depth information on the crisis is made available to the public. Traditional approaches have not brought about a solution. After all, many of us work so hard on this problem, that hardly anyone is as informed about the housing crisis in our communities. Members of Congress tell National Low Income Housing Coalition staff that they hardly ever hear about low-income housing problems from their constituents. Newspaper and television reporters are beginning to treat the housing crisis like old news.
The real scope of the problem and the scale of the response needed must be made known to people who care deeply about housing. The nonprofit housing movement knows technically what is needed to house all Americans. This movement is the ideal source of education. The National Low Income Housing Coalition, along with its sister organization, the Low Income Housing Information Service, is building a national network to carry out this educational effort.
The building blocks of this network are statewide housing and homeless coalitions. Such coalitions exist in almost every state. Some coalitions have been operating since the Carter years, when funds were available for rural housing advocacy. Other coalitions were organized more recently, often with the assistance of the National Low Income Housing Coalition or the National Coalition for the Homeless. Most of these coalitions already have solid track records in their state capitals. They have helped to win state housing trust funds, seed money for nonprofit developers, and other such programs.
Generally, the core leadership of these coalitions comes from nonprofit housing developers and homeless service providers. However, many of these coalitions have been working, with assistance from NLIHC/LIHIS, to significantly expand their outreach. NLIHC/LIHIS has hosted national meetings to bring state coalitions together as a coordinated network.
In cooperation with the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Low Income Housing Coalition began to actively reach out to state coalitions during the late 1980s. In 1993, the Low Income Housing Information Service, our sister organization, implemented its National Housing Policy Initiative (NHPI). It is an unprecedented effort to bring together state coalitions for coordinated advocacy and mutual support. NHPI is supported by major national foundations. In the same year, NLIHC hired a staff person to work full-time with faith groups, and dedicated much of the time of another staff person to working with student groups.
One commitment of the NHPI was to develop a coordinated national campaign. By this time, the outlines of such a campaign were beginning to become clear to NLIHC leaders and staff. NLIHC/LIHIS interim director, Cushing N. Dolbeare, prepared a working paper that laid out the Federal Housing Trust Fund proposal. Members of the staff developed a campaign strategy.
Coalition members and colleagues commented on the proposal and the campaign strategy. In March 1994, the National Low Income Housing Coalition Board of Directors adopted the proposal for the Housing Justice Campaign and the concept of working toward a Federal Housing Trust Fund. A select committee was appointed to further develop the concept. That committee, under the leadership of Mary Brooks of the Trust Fund Project of the Center for Community Change, rigorously analyzed and debated the concept. The committee supported the basic concept, but added insights from their own particular perspectives.
Earlier this year, a number of state coalitions and NLIHC/LIHIS released information about fair market rents categorized by state and metropolitan areas. This action was very successful in its goal of exposing housing problems to the national media. State coalitions are now reaching out to groups within their states that they believe will support housing advocacy.
Two particular tools that state coalitions are using include outreach to students, coordinated with the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, and plans for a Housing Justice Sabbath to be held at a locally appropriate time between Thanksgiving and early January. With these tools, and through other efforts, state coalitions are working with NLIHC/LIHIS to identify groups that will formally endorse the Housing Justice Campaign and the Federal Housing Trust Fund.
Push for a legislative solution
As this broad public education effort moves forward, NLIHC will work closely with national policy leaders to move the concept of a Federal Housing Trust Fund forward as a serious legislative proposal. Soon after NLIHC began this effort, a champion of housing justice came forward. Representative Major Owens (D-NY), well known on Capitol Hill for advocacy on progressive issues, introduced H.R. 5275, The Federal Housing Trust Fund Act of 1994, during the waning days of the 103rd Congress. Representative Owens is an active member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Urban Caucus. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Progressive Caucus and was the Chair of the Select Committee on Education and Civil Rights.
Representatives Owens will reintroduce H.R. 5275 when the 104th Congress reconvenes in January 1995. In his floor statement, he said that the housing appropriations bill that had just passed the Senate “will not even help us stay even with the problem of low-income housing.” He went on to say that “one result of the gross imbalance in federal housing benefits has been the growing segregation of different aspects of American society: rich and poor, white and people of color, urban and suburban. This trend poses a threat to the nation’s general welfare, family and community life, and economic stability. It has even led to increased drug use and crime. It is therefore in the interest of all Americans to address these problems effectively.” In closing, Representative Owens urged his colleagues “to study the bill between now and the beginning of the 104th Congress,” and expressed the hope that at that time “the nation’s housing problem will be on the front burner.”
The National Low Income Housing Coalition has long been known for its ability to defend low-income housing programs from the attacks of conservatives. NLIHC is widely respected on Capitol Hill as a source of accurate information and a grassroots point of view. The coalition’s impact on key housing legislation during the last decade – the Low Income Tax Credit and the National Affordable Housing Act – is undeniable.
NLIHC Legislative Director Deborah Austin has no illusions about the fight for the Federal Housing Trust Fund. “This fight will not be won by skillful lobbying alone, or even by good witnesses, accurate data, or incisive analysis,” Austin said. “The Federal Housing Trust Fund isn’t even a serious proposal unless Congress hears from thousands of concerned citizens and their organizations that serious solutions to the housing problem must be sought – and must be found.”
Critical to the kind of mobilization Ms. Austin is talking about are faith groups and student groups. When aligned, progressive people of faith and activist students have shown enormous power. They made a crucial difference in the course of American foreign policy from Vietnam through the 1980s, and provided vital support to the African-American communities of the South as they dealt the death blow to legal segregation.
Winning the right to housing, though it would be a bold step forward for this country in a time when reactionary ideas are strong, is a battle far more limited than the battles of 1960s. The actual dollar resources involved are small in relation to the entire federal budget. New bureaucracies or new infrastructures do not need to be created. HUD is in place, and nonprofits, community groups, private developers, and state and local agencies are in place to do the job. In a sense, all we are asking is that this nation return to normal. That is, return to a condition that many of us can remember, a time when no people were living on our streets, when the shelter system was not a growth industry, and when low cost housing was always available on Skid Row. We then ask that this situation be regulated, supported, improved, but most importantly made permanent. We must do this so that no future generation will grow up, as one generation already has, in a nation that tolerates homelessness as a way of life.
Become an advocate for housing justice
Pressure from organized groups on decision-makers is the key to the success of the Housing Justice Campaign. The necessary resources to do the job must come from the federal government. We have learned, however, that the job of meeting housing needs cannot be done without full cooperation from state and local governments and the nonprofit and business sectors. We must build an unbreakable and growing network of organizations, from the grassroots to the national level, calling for housing justice and for a system that is “right-side up.”
A. Approach every organization you can to discuss and endorse the Housing Justice Campaign and the Federal Housing Trust Fund.
Send the endorsements to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. NLIHC will call on these organizations at the appropriate time. We want every type of organization possible to be represented in this movement, especially those that represent people with serious housing needs.
B. Encourage every organization that works for the homeless or those in need of housing to include advocacy and education in their work.
When we are silent about what we see, everyone assumes there is no problem. When we are silent about what we do, everyone assumes there is no solution. For every meal we serve to a person with housing needs, we must send a letter to a policy-maker asking why that person was in need, why that person could not get housing justice.
For every groundbreaking ceremony for a new home we attend, we must hold a rally for housing justice. We must ask for all the homes we still need.
For every dollar we give to a shelter, we must make a call to some responsible official asking why we have these shelters, instead of housing justice.
C. Build strong coalitions and alliances.
Above all, we must form strong statewide housing and homeless coalitions. Through these networks we will stay united and focused for the long struggle ahead. Contact Ginja Bethel at 202-662-1530 for the name of your state housing organization. Let them know you want to help. The National Low Income Housing Coalition will depend on these state coalitions as an essential building block for our work. Please support them.
Written by Larry L. Yates, NLIHC Director of Field Services
Edited by Patricia A. Vrabel, NLIHC Director of Communications
We Need a Bold New Program
The Housing Justice Campaign is not a short-term or partial approach to meeting housing needs. The campaign recognizes that housing reforms and programs of the past, despite the hard work of government officials, well-intentioned developers and community activists, have left vast needs unmet. Each time housing costs increase, or poverty and unemployment rates rise, we face the fact that federal housing programs meet only a fraction of the need. Millions of Americans join those who have their lives severely disrupted for lack of suitable housing, or in many instances lack of any housing at all.
The result is that today we are living with the shocking sight of blatant homelessness in our cities. We live with the social and individual deterioration that follows when millions of households pay most of their income for rent and still don’t have safe, decent housing.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition, and the supporters of the Housing Justice Campaign, believe that these conditions should not and must not become a permanent feature of life in our nation. Clearly, this means doing more than introducing new programs, no matter how ingenious. We believe that the only certain way to meet this goal is to establish housing as a basic right for everyone.
Forty-five years ago Congress established a goal of “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.” The National Low Income Housing Coalition proposes that we finally move to meet that goal. The coalition calls for the establishment of a Federal Housing Trust Fund to meet the needs of the millions of low-income families now homeless or unable to obtain decent, affordable housing.
Why doesn’t the National Low Income Housing Coalition just insist that Congress appropriate money for low-income housing? Why are we going through all the effort of moving money from upper-income homeowners to the benefit of low-income people? After all, $25 billion is only about 1.7 percent of the federal budget. The answer is that congressional budget rules don’t allow it. After a decade of reckless deficit spending for the benefit of the wealthy, Congress no longer has the flexibility to just “find” $25 billion annually to meet housing needs. Under current rules, proposals for spending must include a source for their funding.
Didn’t Congress “find” funding for the S&L bailout? True. Congress can break its own rules if it chooses to. If Congress chooses to break its deficit rules to respond to the housing emergency and create a Federal Housing Trust Fund, we will probably support them. But the Housing Justice Campaign is a responsible and reasonable campaign. Everything that it calls for is proven, legitimate, and pragmatic. This way, once we build the movement that will bring the campaign to every part of the nation, we will not face procedural excuses.
- “… the Board of Directors of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT) has officially voted to endorse the Housing Justice Campaign. As representatives of a rapidly growing constituency of low and moderate income people whose lives and futures are directly affected by the nation’s financial commitment to affordable housing, the NAHT Board believes that the time is long past due for distributive justice in the way Congress allocates housing subsidies, including indirect subsidies to affluent homeowners through the tax system.
– Jim McNeill, President, National Alliance of HUD Tenants Board of Directors, August 21, 1994.