Housing and the New Congress

The 110th Congress: What's in store for housing and community advocates?

Progressives are celebrating the change in power in the federal government created by the mid-term elections. After so many years of defending necessary programs and fighting back bad policy proposals, we are hoping that we now can initiate change and stop defending the status quo.

There are good reasons for low-income housing advocates to be hopeful. In the House of Representatives, Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) will be the new chairman of the Financial Services Committee. Frank has made affordable housing a top priority. He has depth of knowledge about federal housing programs and understands how pressing the need is for new investment to solve serious housing problems. John Olver (D-MA) will chair the Transportation, Treasury and HUD Appropriations Subcommittee in the House and can be counted on to make sure housing programs are not shortchanged in the annual appropriations process. Charles Rangel (D-NY), called the father of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), will chair the House Ways and Means Committee.

In the Senate, Christopher Dodd (D-CT) will chair the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, as Paul Sarbanes (D-MD), the current Ranking Member, is retiring. We expect Jack Reed (D-RI) to become chairman of the Housing and Transportation Subcommittee. While Senator Sarbanes will be sorely missed, Senators Dodd and Reed have consistently demonstrated their commitment to affordable housing.

Low-income people in need of safe, decent and affordable housing now have people in positions of power in Washington who will look out for their interests, for a change.

It is easy to read praise for these elected officials as partisan. The fact is that with Democrats in charge, it is likely that progressive housing policy will get a more favorable hearing than it has in recent years under Republican rule. But it is also a fact that housing historically has had champions on both sides of the aisle. Indeed, low-income housing advocates lost some important allies in the mid-term election, such as Republican Representatives Jim Leach (IA), Rob Simmons (CT), Nancy Johnson (CT) and Senator Lincoln Chafee (RI). And despite his other troubles, as the chairman of the Housing and Community Opportunity Subcommittee in the House, Representative Bob Ney (R-OH) did a good job in preventing most of the Bush administration’s more draconian ideas about HUD programs from seeing the light of day.

The problem in the last several Congresses is not that Republicans did not support housing programs, but that the leadership was determined that nothing could come to the floor unless a “majority of the majority” would support it. Therefore, there was no opportunity for bipartisan compromise on issues that the more extreme elements of the Republican Party did not support. Low-income housing advocates should celebrate the outcome of the election, not because Democrats won, but because we now have some hope for a return to bipartisan cooperation, which is how good public policy gets done.

What can we expect to see on the legislative agenda? Every housing advocate knows what he or she would like to see and the list is long. Here are a few items the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) is looking for.

Certainly, we can expect that the funding formula for Housing Choice Vouchers will be repaired and full voucher utilization will return. Improvements to vouchers such as more rational rent calculations and real portability should be at top of the list. And if we are going to provide any relief to the tens of thousands of families on housing assistance waiting lists, at least a few new vouchers are in order. NLIHC is calling for 100,000 new vouchers a year, most of which can be designated for specific populations with the most acute needs.

Of all the HUD programs, public housing has fared the worst under the Bush administration and the Republican Congress. According to the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, the public housing operating fund will be funded at only 78 percent of need in FY2007. The public housing capital fund has been reduced every year since FY2002.

Public housing is in crisis, which jeopardizes the well-being of the 1.2 million families who live there. Congress will have to grapple with how to preserve good public housing, but should avoid the easy fix of deregulation as is proposed with the expansion of the so-called Moving to Work (MTW) program. The authorizing committees should hold hearings on the experiences with the existing MTW sites and figure out what lessons really have been learned.

The tragedy of people who are still displaced by Hurricane Katrina will require congressional action next year. Both the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and HUD housing assistance are scheduled to end in 2007, but families who remain in the programs are some of the poorest evacuees who have the fewest opportunities to return home. Responsibility for long-term housing assistance for all evacuees needs to be transferred to HUD, and HUD needs more Housing Choice Vouchers to make sure people can resettle in stable housing. One of the first orders of business for both the authorizing and appropriating committees for FEMA and HUD should be to convene hearings and demand answers from these agencies about what it will take to prevent a second displacement of so many vulnerable people.

Congressmen Rangel and Frank have stated they want to do some work on the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. We hope that they will make the LIHTC more useful for development of housing for those with the more serious affordability problems and that they will improve the distribution system so that LIHTC subsidized homes will be built where they are most needed.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, the sober reality is that the tax-cutting and war-spending people who have been in charge for the last five years have driven the country into a very deep financial ditch. There is no money left. Digging our way out will take discipline and time. Congress is likely to return to “pay-go” policies, which will require offsets elsewhere in the budget for any new spending or tax expenditures. However, restoring national fiscal health and improving the economic well-being of low-income people can be done at the same time if we can achieve a much greater measure of fairness in the federal tax code.

In the meantime, we now can make progress on housing for the lowest income people by moving the National Housing Trust Fund with a dedicated funding source, not dependent on appropriations, in the next Congress. The National Housing Trust Fund is the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s top priority. The plan to include such a dedicated funding source in legislation on regulatory reform of the Government Sponsored Entities (GSE’s) in the current Congress was a good one. Unfortunately, the GSE legislation is unlikely to move this year. But we can still look to the GSEs in 2007 for ways to fund the National Housing Trust Fund.

The bad news is that housing unaffordability just keeps getting worse. The good news is that most senators and congressmen, regardless of party, know this. Now they just might be in a position to do something about it.

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