HUD and budget cuts

Armstrong Williams | 2/22/2018, 10:17 a.m.
A little more than 50 years ago, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development was formed.
Armstrong Williams

A little more than 50 years ago, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development was formed. It was created in response to the urban unrest of the 1960s, as well as the desire to elevate the status and effectiveness of the federal programs that addressed local housing and community development challenges. 

Years earlier, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had signed into law the legislation that gave birth to the Federal Housing Administration—which permitted racial redlining, I might add—and public housing for the working poor. A large part of the motivation for the 1930s era law was to stimulate economic activity and create jobs. 

In 1949, federally funded housing for lower-income Americans was due for a revamp and two senators—conservative Republican Robert Taft of Ohio and liberal Democrat Robert Wagner of New York—teamed up and authored the landmark Housing Act of 1949. Importantly, it defined the federal housing objective: “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American.” 

As it turned out, the objective was largely aspirational. Today, fewer than one out of four eligible people receive a rental voucher. More than 20 million Americans pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing, making them one car accident, illness or job loss away from the streets. We face a silent affordability crisis that grows each year. Accelerating that trend, the tax reform bill signed into law by President Trump will have the effect of reducing the value of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit by 15 percent, meaning even less housing help for the working poor. The outcome would have been much, much worse but for the heroic efforts of Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH). 

The media largely ignores this crisis. Most politicians do, too. Secretly, many wish the problem would just go away on its own. But it won’t. And wishing it away is no more effective than a child who wishes away their household duties. We don’t like the image, for one. Beginning in the 1950s slums were cleared, neighborhoods altered and public housing edifices took their place. At first, they were modern and new. But as a result of federal micromanagement, poor building design and shortsighted polices, the old slums were replaced with new ones, now more dangerous, uglier and more oppressive and devoid of hope than the neighborhoods that came before. In the news, we saw high-rise poverty hulks like Cabrini Green in Chicago and Desire in New Orleans that seemed symptomatic of federal housing failure. 

But much of these poor policies were put in place before there was a HUD and things have begun to change for the better. Twenty years ago Republican Congressman Rick Lazio authored a sweeping law that replaced much of the federal command and control model, permitted a tenant mix that encouraged more people with low-wage jobs, allowed housing vouchers to be used for homeownership down-payment assistance and created a service requirement for able-bodied public housing residents who received the benefit. Cabrini Green and others like it were demolished and replaced with buildings that were safer, healthier and more in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.