Local Lessons for Legislators

The new legislative season is usually a time of optimism for housing advocates, many of whom believe that the right words, coupled with the proper legislative and public relations strategy, will finally enable the powers that be to “see the light.” As Jerry Jones pointed out in these pages last month (Shelterforce #126), there is some reason to believe that the momentum behind the FHA reforms and the National Housing Trust Fund campaign, both of which moved forward in the so-called Roukema housing bill, can be sustained in the 108th Congress.

However, storm clouds that may limit our attention and zap our energy have already appeared on the horizon. The Bush administration’s cutbacks in public housing funding and its proposal to eliminate the tax on dividends are causing a serious roiling of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and tax-exempt bond markets. Those of us who have participated in the annual fight for housing resources and responsible policies understand the incremental nature of the work we do here in Washington. This is not to suggest that we will accept and appreciate whatever comes our way. But it may be time to reframe our understanding of the way in which progress is achieved and measured.

Clearly, without continued federal support our progress will be limited or possibly reversed. This means that, at a minimum, existing commitments to both publicly and privately owned affordable housing must be met in 2004. In addition, increases in proven programs which produce new units (HOME, CDBG, HOPE VI, housing tax credits) must be considered to close the ever widening gap between the number of families seeking decent affordable housing and the housing available to them at a price they can afford. Finally, it is essential that greater attention be paid to increasing the supply of both rental and homeownership affordable housing. Our report, “America’s Working Families and the Housing Landscape,” reveals that the number of families paying more than 50 percent of their income for housing increased by 67 percent between 1999 and 2001. But with war looming, Congress and the administration will more than likely have precious little time to worry about a concern that usually hovers below Washington’s political radar. With the possible exception of the down payment assistance program, housing will run a distant third or worse to education and perhaps welfare reform. In fact, we may come to regret that the Roukema bill did not advance further and that the Millennial Housing Commission’s report was virtually ignored in the last session. While the National Housing Conference will seek to draw attention to several recommendations inspired by the report’s findings, the dedication, scholarship and spirit of the commission may be lost without a larger groundswell of interest.

Despite the steep path ahead of us, there is much promise in the largely unheralded work that is occurring outside the Beltway. For example, 57 percent of California voters approved a $2.1 billion housing bond issue in November. Washington needs to pay attention to similar efforts, large and small, that are occurring across the country. Properly supported, state and local housing initiatives, public and private, can be enlarged or enhanced to supplement the under-funded federal commitment to housing.

Over the last two years, NHC has conducted eight roundtables on affordable housing in places as different as San Diego and Philadelphia to widen the circle of those who are knowledgeable about local housing issues and inspire them to new heights. These sessions have enabled NHC to better interpret and communicate what’s working (or not) and why, and encourage more informed and responsive federal housing policies. We heard much about the importance of private sector incentives, housing’s important role in local debates about growth, the divisions that exist between central cities and surrounding communities and the need to encourage regional solutions. We also heard much about how local barriers (codes, zoning, land availability, permit processing and NIMBY) have stalled meaningful progress. We discussed how the progressive work of state housing agencies such as the Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency have made a difference and how Fannie Mae Partnership Offices, lenders, local Chambers of Commerce, LISC, the Enterprise Foundation and others have found new ways to put housing within reach of those who need it.

As the housing battle begins anew in Washington, we need to do a better job of leveraging local resources and supporting programs and policies that are filling the void of federal support. We must find ways to support companies that have begun employer-assisted housing programs so that the trailblazing efforts of corporations like Harley Davidson and Northwestern Mutual might be emulated or enlarged upon by others. Absent a massive infusion of new federal support, pressure should be brought to bear to support successful local initiatives as an integral part of the nation’s commitment to housing. Failing this, these efforts are doomed to remain small boutique initiatives that help a few, while the many are forced to deal with their housing problems any way they can.

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