Cushing N. Dolbeare, founder and chair emeritus of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, died March 17 of cancer at her home in Mitchellville, MD.
Dolbeare began the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) in 1974 in response to the Nixon Administration’s moratorium on federal housing programs. She served as NLIHC’s executive director from 1977 to 1984 and again from 1993 to 1994. She remained active with NLIHC as a researcher, policy analyst and board member until her death. Known for her ability to unite seemingly disparate groups, she found common ground between the financial interests of the real estate industry and the moral interests of advocates for the poor. She freely crossed party lines, forming unlikely alliances of conservatives and liberals without ever losing sight of her mission and goals.
Dolbeare was one of the nation’s leading experts on federal housing policy and the housing circumstances of low-income people. She designed the methodology for and was the original author of Out of Reach, NLIHC’s annual report on the gap between housing costs and wages of low-income people. She was also well known for her work on analyzing federal housing subsidies, documenting the disparity between the cost of tax-based subsidies that benefit homeowners and direct spending on housing assistance for low-income households.
“Cushing was both the conscience and the brains of the affordable housing movement. There is no one else like her. Her passing is a great loss to the nation, but especially to low-income people whose well-being was her life’s work,” said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Dolbeare also founded the Low Income Housing Information Service and was executive director of the National Rural Housing Coalition from 1974 to 1977. She served on the President’s Commission on Housing in 1981 and 1982 and chaired a HUD and Environmental Protection Agency joint task force on the hazards of lead paint from 1993 to 1995.
“Cushing was the godmother of the affordable housing advocacy movement,” Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes said. He added that her “commitment, careful analysis and attention to the facts…made her respected by all.”
Just a few weeks ago, Dolbeare delivered a speech to the National Council of State Housing Agencies where she quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address. Roosevelt described a nation in which one-third of the population was “ill-fed, ill-housed and ill-clothed.” Dolbeare said that a third of all Americans, as many as 95 million people, still face deficiencies in housing.
“Throughout my career,” Dolbeare told a House subcommittee in 1995, outlining the source of her advocacy, “I have viewed housing as the basis of family, neighborhood and community life.” In a 2002 interview with Shelterforce, she said, “What we need is not so much a national housing policy as a national commitment to solving our housing problems, and to a strong federal government role in addressing those problems.”
In 2002, Cushing was awarded the Heinz Award for the Human Condition, “in recognition for 50 years of tireless commitment to the principle that decent housing is basic to our social fabric.” She and her husband Louis donated the award of $250,000 to the National Low Income Housing Coalition as the lead gift to the Cushing N. Dolbeare Endowment Fund established by the NLIHC board of directors in 2002, in honor of her 50 years as a low-income housing advocate. She was appointed by Sen. Sarbanes to the Bipartisan Millennial Housing Commission, chartered by Congress in 2000 to examine and make recommendations to Congress on providing affordable housing for all Americans. In 2002, she was appointed Senior Scholar at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. At the time of her death, she was a member of the board of trustees of the Enterprise Foundation, and the boards of directors of the Housing Assistance Council, the Alliance for Healthy Homes and the National Housing Conference.
She was a mentor to countless housing advocates and researchers. In 1995, Jason DeParle wrote in the New York Times that she was the “dean” of the Washington corps of housing advocates. Her honest assessments and unassuming manner made her a trusted source of information and a model for the best kind of lobbying.