Housing, Politics and Moral Values

How long will it take for us to wise up? I would guess that almost all readers of Shelterforce feel very deeply that extensive poverty remains a national scandal, that the current minimum wage is shameful, that discrimination against gays is disgraceful and that the growth of unaccountable corporate power is morally wrong because it undermines democracy worldwide. We oppose Bush because his economic policies are immoral.

While polls have shown for a generation that Americans feel there has been a decline in moral values, we have allowed the right wing to run against government (read: Democrats or liberals) and for moral values (read: conservatives and Republicans, despite the hypocrisy of right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh and Tom DeLay).

To build a progressive majority willing to support low-income housing as well as other programs to help the poor, we should proudly express our economic concerns – living-wage jobs, safe neighborhoods, affordable housing – in a way that supports an activist government and in value-laden tones that ring true to most of the middle class. And we need politicians who can talk authentically about these concerns as well.

When we frame housing policies simply in transactional terms, it comes off as pandering: We need to increase taxes to pay for programs for our base – minorities and the poor. We have stopped making moral arguments that support our issues, or we make them apologetically. We hedge on our main point, that it’s immoral for children to grow up in slum housing and for families to pay so much for housing that they have no money to pay for food. Instead we rely on what we view as more hard-headed appeals like “affordable housing is necessary because, well, uh, it’s a good investment… uh, because it can help bring jobs to the community.” When our moral arguments lose vigor, we become vulnerable to those who can claim there are better ways to invest tax dollars and bring housing and jobs to the community.

Unless we wrap our concerns within a vision that goes beyond rhetoric, we will be talking in the wilderness.

Values, Politics and Authenticity
We spend too much time, energy and money on analyzing, evaluating and scrutinizing housing and economic development issues. We have a multitude of statistics, reports, papers and briefings by the Brookings Institution and the other public interest lobbies explaining why Bush’s policies are exacerbating the nation’s housing problems.

Yet at election time, especially national elections, the nonwonk voter just hears claims and counterclaims (the secretary of HUD asserts he increased housing aid and homeownership rates) and has no ability to weigh them. So she doesn’t. She goes with the politician she trusts; the one who speaks with moral certainty.

According to poll surveys done by Stanley Greenberg, John Kerry was weighed down by voter doubts about his convictions and authenticity that left him short with many blue collar, non-college educated and union voters and Hispanics. In the end, Kerry was unable to make the economy a central point in the campaign or to break through with his vision for creating better jobs with more affordable health care. Greenberg concludes that swing voters who had their doubts about Bush’s policies believe Bush is honest, not because he campaigned on integrity in government, but because he appears to share their values about the importance of religion in our daily lives.

So much for the millions of dollars invested in reports like “Risk Based Mortgage Pricing and Its Effect on Predatory Lending” and “Crime in Public Housing: Multilevel Relationships Across Time.”

Values and The Role of Government
Progressives and the Religious Right have two things in common. We both believe in an activist government that will support our values. And we both believe that an unfettered market is a danger to those values. We differ on what values to emphasize. The right confines the discussion to the personal and sexual – abortion, gay marriages, sex education in the schools. We need to extend that discussion to include enriching the lives of the poor by providing the disadvantaged with economic opportunities.

I recall that when I was a member of the Working Group on Human Needs and Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the chair of the group, former U.S. Senator Harris Wofford, would say “…it is our duty, in war as in peace, not to forget the pressing needs of the poor, the disadvantaged and those otherwise being left behind…” So it all begins with our belief in the moral imperative to lift up the poor. Bush’s policies should be judged on their effect on reducing poverty.

But it is not enough to call on government to help the poor. Americans believe in the notion of empowerment. If government and private corporations provide some of the resources, authority and support, most poor people can help themselves. So for starters, community development and housing programs that assume the poor are helpless victims should be eliminated. In every low-income community many talented people with skills and even financial assets can be mobilized if government programs build on their strengths and positive energy. Federal and state funds that go to government agencies or nonprofits should prioritize programs that increase self-reliance, including literacy programs, family self-sufficiency programs, IDAs and the enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act. Government should provide matching funds for resident initiatives to create dues-paying, membership-controlled organizations, and protect tenant organizing and political activism in subsidized housing.

Related to the idea of empowerment is the notion of promoting reciprocal responsibility and providing the tools necessary for responsible civic behavior. We should reward people who work hard and play by the rules. That is why we need to dramatically increase the minimum wage and the earned income tax credit. On the other hand, to fail to fund community-based organizations that work to reduce inner-city crime and revitalize neighborhoods is immoral and a violation of the principle of reciprocity.

We should argue over and over that it is wrong when a country provides tax breaks to the richest CEOs in the country and cuts rent subsidies for poor families. It is outrageous to fail to do the things that value families, like creating a family leave fund to cover 75 percent of wages and backing a national trust fund for the building of new affordable housing. It is wrong to allow greedy corporations to move profitable companies out of communities without helping the people left behind to invest in alternative business enterprises.

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

These are a set of values that will help the poor and are consistent with the values of an overwhelming number of American people. Putting our programs in the context of these values and fighting for them with a clear moral voice can help us offset the rhetoric of the right.

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John Atlas is a founder of Shelterforce and board chair emeritus. He is the producer of ACORN and the Firestorm, a film directed by Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard and author of SEEDS OF CHANGE: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group. He is also the former executive director of the Passaic County Legal Aid Society.

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