Help at Home

Of all the Cabinet secretaries who have served in recent decades in Washington, none have done more to energize their bureaucracies than Jack Kemp and Henry Cisneros. Running the backwater Department of Housing and Urban Development between 1989 and 1997, Republican Kemp and Democrat Cisneros used their competitive drive and enthusiasm to draw attention to what may well be America’s most neglected issue.

Now the two men have teamed to produce an election-season report outlining a housing agenda for the nation — one that could command support in Congress whatever the outcome of the November vote.

Kemp, a former pro quarterback and member of the House, and Cisneros, a former mayor of San Antonio, will introduce their 12-point program at a National Press Club news conference today, joined by the co-authors, Kent Colton, a former chief executive of the National Association of Home Builders, and Nicolas Retsinas, the director of Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

In a cover letter, the authors say they came together out of a mutual concern that in “the modern-day zeal for partisanship,” people are losing sight of “the gravity of this nation’s housing problem, and the severe consequences if we as a nation fail to remedy that problem.”

The biggest single item in most family budgets is the rent or mortgage payment, and nothing is more fundamental to a family’s health, education and employment prospects than having a decent place to live. More than 60 percent of Americans own their own homes, but, as this report notes, “for those who lack such housing, the daily struggle to meet basic needs takes precedence, and individual aspirations must be set aside.” In many of the battleground states, including New Hampshire, where I spent last week, the shortage of affordable housing is a major economic and social concern.

One would think that housing would rank right up there with jobs, health care and education on the priority list of domestic problems. But in this campaign, as in the last, the candidates tend to give it no more than a brief glance.

Yet Cisneros and Kemp are surely right in contending that housing is every bit as important a measure of American values as any of those other concerns. “We are a nation that understands and asserts the promise of individual opportunity and we recognize that decent housing is a precursor to its realization,” they write.

Their agenda includes programs to end chronic homelessness, revive and expand public housing, increase the use of housing vouchers, encourage employer-assisted housing, eliminate regulatory barriers to affordable housing, and crack down on predatory lending and overt discrimination.

The recommendations strike me as practical and specific — not tilted to the left or the right. For example, they endorse the establishment of a National Housing Trust Fund, an idea that has gathered increasing support in Congress, to provide the capital needed to produce, preserve or rehabilitate at least 1.5 million affordable housing units over the next 10 years.

They note that it has been more than 20 years since the federal government tried to target the housing needs of families with extremely low incomes and point out that, without a dedicated revenue source, the current shortages of such housing are likely to get worse.

Or take their suggestion for a federal homeownership tax credit, a favorite proposal of President Bush. Because more than 90 percent of the benefits of the mortgage interest deduction accrue to home buyers with incomes of more than $40,000 per year, many of them suburbanites, any new credit should be tailored to lower-income, urban families, the report says. And it should be flexible enough to help them with the down payment and closing costs — often a bigger barrier than the monthly mortgage payment.

During the four years each of them ran HUD, Kemp and Cisneros spent much of their time out in the field. So it is not surprising that another of the valuable features of their report are the one-page summaries of local initiatives that are already proving themselves — programs in such places as Columbus, Ohio; King County, Wash.; Chicago; Detroit; and Boston — and that can serve as models for larger-scale initiatives.

The message from these men is simple and important: There are things to be done for housing in America, and they need not fall victim to partisan debate.