Be Pragmatic and Persistent

In the midst of the recent presidential campaign, the Wall Street Journal declared, “Despite Sky-High Rents and Prices, Housing Is the Forgotten Issue in Race.”

“People don’t expect the federal government to have a role anymore,” explained former President Jimmy Carter. With the campaign, the Bush administration set itself a very low bar.

However, facts can shape agendas. Too many people today are searching futilely for housing they can afford. From Silicon Valley to suburban Boston, from the Twin Cities to the Texas border towns, nearly five million renter households are paying more than 30 percent of their income for rent – the government’s standard threshold of affordability. Indeed, in this time of soaring prosperity and soaring rents, renters in the bottom quarter of the income distribution saw their real incomes decline. The stereotypical Bush constituency may not have so much trouble finding housing for themselves, but they cannot find housing for their workers or their grown children. Although the dearth of affordable housing did not dominate the Clinton agenda, as unemployment creeps up that dearth will grow more severe. This new administration, ideology aside, will have to deal with housing. The message to progressives is: be pragmatic and persistent.

The current housing agenda focuses on the existing subsidized stock. Over two-thirds of the Fiscal Year 2001 HUD budget is allocated to preserving and subsidizing existing privately and publicly owned rental units.

Advocating new federal programs will be a Sisyphean task. Advocating new programs to be administered by HUD will be even more problematic. With the expansion of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and the New Markets Initiative, the Treasury Department has become our new HUD. However, the federal budget surplus does create an opening – at least until an oversized tax cut eviscerates it.

Progressives should consider a bipolar strategy:

For the administration, progressives should concentrate on preserving and protecting allocations to existing programs. Large tax cuts coupled with budget cuts are ominous signs. The enthusiasm over tax cuts, however, may at least have opened the door for a low-income homeownership tax credit (advocated by Candidate Bush and previously sponsored by Senator Jack Reed, D-RI) that would provide second mortgages and downpayment assistance to working families. (See Shelterforce #115.) Since the current mortgage interest deduction is regressive (over 90 percent of the benefit goes to families with incomes over $40,000 a year), any new credit must be targeted to low-income households.

For the Congress, progressives should craft a parallel strategy. Last year, the Senate Appropriations Committee outlined a new housing production program – to be administered primarily by state housing finance agencies. Building on that initiative, the National Low Income Housing Coalition has helped organize a National Housing Trust Fund Campaign that advocates a new production and preservation program with the goal of 1,500,000 homes by 2010. (See Shelterforce #113.)

On all fronts, in arguing for housing, progressives should link decent homes to education (studies correlate poor grades with frequent moves) and economic development (where will the workers live?).

The strategy for the next four years must be tactical – cognizant of political realities, but determinedly pushing affordable housing onto our national agenda.

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