Is affordable housing on the American agenda? If you’ve been reading the national press for the past few months, you might think so. Following a wonderful series of articles by Deborah Sontag, Frank Bruni, Lizette Alvarez, Dan Barry, and Alan Finder in The New York Times last October, which documented the dismal state of low-income housing in New York City, The New York Times Magazine published “Slamming the Door” by Jason DeParle on November 11th. DeParle’s article gave the complexities of housing policy a clear and human face. That same day U.S. News and World Report published “The Disappearance of Affordable Housing.”
While these articles are important, they are, as Helen Dunlap points out in her interview, only part of a larger process to educate Americans about the housing crisis we face.
For housing to be on the agenda, middle-class voters must understand how their taxes subsidize housing for the rich while their own housing becomes increasingly unaffordable and adequate housing is essentially unavailable to millions of working and non-working poor households.
To be effective, advocates must understand the process by which housing policy is developed and funded. To that end, Deborah Austin of the National Low Income Housing Coalition provides an overview of housing-related legislative issues before the current Congress and administration. Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change provides a brief “who’s who” of the various congressional committees overseeing – directly and indirectly – housing policy.
The budget brings policy to life. You’ll find a comparison of the HUD FY98 budget submitted by the Clinton Administration with those of the last two years. FY98’s budget has already gone through one hurdle. The president’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), now under the direction of Franklin D. Raines, former vice chairman of the Fannie Mae Corporation, drafted what it thought would be an appropriate funding level given the president’s priorities and the need to balance the budget. The submitted budget reflects the negotiations between HUD and OMB as well as the input of housing organizations.
Partnerships – Good and Bad
Here’s some more news, which for-profit companies are increasingly aware of: investment in inner cities can be profitable. The inner city, as we all now know, has “competitive advantages” for business investment.
Good news. But, what exactly do we have to thank for all this renewed interest in the inner city? In a January 24th Boston Globe article, Rachel G. Bratt of Tufts University points out that: “the true heroes are government – state, local, and even federal – and the array of nonprofit organizations that never gave up when private investment gave out. We should not too quickly sing the praises of the return of private capital without first understanding the damage that disinvestment has caused in the very areas that may now be poised for a rebound. “
“Private business,” Bratt concludes, “should be respectful of the hard work, investment and commitment by those who never left the inner city – the public and nonprofit sectors. Moreover, private business should consider embracing the community economic development agenda that has been formulated by its newly found hosts.”
One way private business can embrace and strengthen the work of nonprofits is through state-administered tax credits available to companies working with nonprofits. Carol Wayman describes such “neighborhood assistance programs” and some of their benefits. But she cautions that NAPS should be designed to provide low-income people and communities with more resources, services, and jobs than they have now.
On another cautionary note, Ramsey Gregory outlines practical issues for nonprofits to consider before entering into partnerships with for-profit housing developers. A partnership in which a nonprofit has no participation or control could jeopardize a nonprofit’s tax exempt status and, in the case of a HUD-designated Community Housing Development Organization, its access to HOME program funding.
From Cisneros to Cuomo
After four years of often thankless work by Henry Cisneros, HUD still stands, now under the leadership of Andrew Cuomo. During Mr. Cisneros’ tenure, HUD nearly disappeared. As Deborah Austin describes, “HUD was one of several agencies targeted for elimination under the banner of fiscal conservatism and federal downsizing. The House set up a commission to study options for eliminating the department, and 57 Representatives signed on to a bill to reorganize HUD out of existence.”
Even the administration showed little support for HUD. Inside the department, a dispirited staff waited for the ax to fall. It did, but not all the way. With a reduced staff and consolidated programs, Mr. Cisneros managed to keep it alive.
As housing advocates are quick to point out, much of what Cisneros accomplished fell short of expectations. But, given the environment, especially after the 1994 elections, his accomplishments – from Empowerment Zones to reforming public housing – were significant.
Now it’s Mr. Cuomo’s turn.