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.
And just a few years ago, a new program called the Rental Assistance Demonstration Program was implemented to reduce the burden on the federal taxpayer, authorize private capital and private building management and create a private funding stream for long deferred building maintenance. Almost 200,000 public housing units have converted or will soon be converted to this hopeful model by HUD.
Today, the leader at HUD isn’t some unrealistic, left-wing idealist, but a brilliant, pragmatic, principled man who wants to empower residents, build human capital, restore more local control and introduce the concept of personal responsibility wherever it’s appropriate. Dr. Ben Carson was nominated by President Trump to remake HUD into an agency that reflects these values and priorities. He is doing just that and he needs the support to continue his good work.
Washington, D.C., is a town that is full of rumors. One could say that rumors fuel the media and the political class in the city. And you wouldn’t be wrong. One such story going around suggests that the Office of Management and Budget is planning on a disastrous budget with double digit cuts for Carson’s HUD. I’m not sure who thinks of such things. It’s certainly not anyone who has the president’s— let alone the nation’s—best interests at heart. Eighty-eight percent of the HUD budget is consumed by five housing programs, much of it contractual with appropriate legal protections. They can’t absorb such cuts without legal liability. Where would OMB have HUD cut? Perhaps veteran’s homeless assistance—just as some communities have announced smarter strategies with HUD’s help that have completely eliminated homelessness among the men and women who have served our nation and risked their lives? Perhaps OMB would be more sensitive to this consequence if their leaders had been veterans.
Or maybe cut housing rental vouchers? Surely, the beneficiaries are all lazy and unmotivated and the cuts will get them out of their chairs. Wrong again. Eighty-eight percent of residents with vouchers are elderly, disabled or working. Could OMB be oblivious to this fact? Or is it worse than that? The point is that HUD supports the elderly and disabled because there is no one else to do it. As a society, we don’t tolerate what some other nation’s will: the elderly or the disabled dying on the streets because they have no shelter, no place to call their home. The last thing we want to project is that we as a society don’t care about the most vulnerable among us. And then there is the economic reality: If we push out elderly and disabled residents with unaffordable rent increases or eviction, many will end up in facilities, such as nursing homes, which will cost the taxpayer much more than the cost of the rental subsidy.
And what of those who are working and struggling with housing? Don’t we conservatives embrace the ideals of opportunity and empowerment? We believe that those who are able-bodied are best off when they have the dignity of a job, when they are able to win the satisfaction of performing a duty and getting paid for that. So why wouldn’t we want to help those who are doing what we want them to do? Who wouldn’t want to give them a secure home? The fact is that the reason that the working poor need some help from HUD is that many have one or two minimum-wage jobs, hustling, getting up in the morning, doing an honest day’s work. And there is not a single community in America where a minimum-wage worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment. Nowhere.
Conservatives need to step up in defense of a reformed HUD and in support of Carson’s human empowerment initiatives. Yes, there are changes at HUD that are overdue, and we finally have the team in place to make these changes that reflect the values of work, responsibility and compassion.
Cuts to HUD would have a tragic outcome. Mick Mulvaney must avoid a politically catastrophic and ethically dubious decision that is unworthy of the president who trusted him with the job.
Mr. Williams is manager/ sole owner of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the Year. Listen to Mr. Williams on Sirius XM126 Urban View nightly 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., EST. Follow on Twitter @arightside.