Recently, The Washington Post ran a series, Million-Dollar Wasteland, that waded through layers of project mismanagement and bureaucracy depicting the shortcomings of the HOME program, the federal government’s largest block grant made available to states and local governments for building, buying, and rehabbing affordable housing.
The investigation unearthed layers of problems, including instances where local housing authorities issued money to less-than-qualified or troubled builders or developers; fund distribution that occurred before development plans had yet to be completely vetted through the planning process; and project delays and cancellations.
The yearlong investigation uncovered a dysfunctional system that delivers billions of dollars to local housing agencies with few rules, safeguards or even a reliable way to track projects. The lapses have led to widespread misspending and delays in a two-decade-old program meant to deliver decent housing to the working poor.
The investigation is damning, but does it tell the whole story, or does it accurately depict HOME? Waste and mismanagement exists, but what about the successes? More, what about claims like “nearly one in seven projects shows signs of significant delay?” HUD balked at that claim, among others, in an in-depth response on its blog:
This claim is false and reflects significant factual errors. Initially, the Post reviewed data on all 28,000 HOME developments that were pending as of November last year. The Post’s total of approximately 700 projects that showed signs of delay actually represents only about 2.5 percent of the total HOME projects, not one in seven.
While the HUD response did a thorough job clarifying, filling in, or even outright refuting elements of The Post’s investigation, others have stepped up saying that, again, while reporting on waste in government or private sector bureaucracy is essential, focusing explicitly on the problems amid a sea of successes can be misleading or even destructive. Joe Kriesberg, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Associations makes this very point:
The Washington Post articles do the country a disservice by grossly exaggerating the problems and failing to put the small number of problem projects in the context of the one million homes developed by this program over the years. Even Adrian Gonzalez strikes out occassionally and we cannot expect a federal program with thousands of projects underway across the entire country to never have any problems — especially during the worst real estate market since the Great Depression.
Kriesberg, also points to the possible implications of The Post’s report in a time of anti-government sentiment:
By failing to get its facts right and by failing to put the problems in the context of the overall track record of the program, The Post demonstrates either laziness or a desire to create a scandal where none exists. It is unfortunate that the Post seems eager to jump on the “government is broken” bandwagon, especially when articles like this will create real harm for struggling families and communities.
Sheila Crowley, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, says while there is an important public service of holding officials accountable for the use of public resources, she defends HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, saying that his office had made strides in challenging state and local officials to do “a better job.” Crowley cites HUD’s recent rejection of a request by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who sought to use CDBG disaster funds for Hurricane Ike relief, forcing Texas “to come up with a new plan that would get more money to counties with the greatest need and less money to counties run by his political allies.”
Crowley also offers a wry nod to HOME’s successes, amid a complicated environment when it comes to affordable housing production:
I won’t defend any of the examples cited, but I will say that our current system of developing affordable housing is so convoluted that it is a wonder there are not more delays. Virtually no project is financed only by HOME. The developer has to “leverage” funds from multiple sources, with different application processes and time frames. Leveraging is an intentional component of all federal affordable housing development programs.
Crowley also rejects the black-and-white take on funds being administered before the planning process is complete:
Obtaining local zoning approvals and other permits present additional challenges. Community opposition can surface at any time and local politicians are notorious for succumbing to NIMBYism. Any problem in this complex system can delay or even halt a project.
And, of course, Crowley points to the what should really be riling people up: even if HUD — which is “grossly underfunded” — were a paragon of bureaucracy “there would still be hundreds of thousands of people who are homeless in the United States and millions of poor people who do not have decent and affordable homes.
This, Crowley writes, “is the real scandal.”