The War on Affordable Housing

Ideologues in the Bush administration would like to dismantle Section 8, the most successful public-and-private housing partnership in the history of the United States. That’s the only way to explain the destructive policies emanating from the Housing and Urban Development Department, which has been hammering at Section 8 all year. The conflicting signals and general aura of hostility have convinced housing authorities around the country that they need to defend themselves by avoiding new commitments and cutting back on their old ones.

Even worse, the developers who have counted on Section 8 money to build affordable housing for the poor, the elderly and the disabled now think that they can no longer trust this program. Republican lawmakers whose districts are being hurt have kept quiet in the name of party solidarity. But this posture of loyal complicity will be difficult to maintain as the housing crisis deepens, which it surely will if HUD continues along its current course.

A landmark program, Section 8 has produced affordable housing for needy Americans since the Nixon years. It works this way: instead of doing the construction itself, the government guarantees subsidies for rents in the private market. Families, most of them at or below the poverty level, pay 30 percent of their incomes toward rent, and Section 8 vouchers pay the rest. At the moment, the program covers about two million people, a majority of them elderly or in families with children. Developers building affordable housing have come to depend on Section 8 guarantees for financial backing.

Things are getting worse by the day, thanks to ideologues in the Bush administration who prefer a laissez-faire approach, regardless of the social costs. Unable to dismember the Section 8 program directly, HUD has chosen to destabilize it with a series of rule changes and budget maneuvers that are being felt from coast to coast. The current HUD secretary, Alphonso Jackson, has settled on a particularly destructive strategy involving misdirection and sleight of hand. He releases poorly explained policies that include hidden, but draconian, cuts. After an outcry from Congress, he retreats to lesser cuts that leave the program diminished, housing authorities confused and the general public mistakenly believing that the status quo has been regained.

The latest incident, laid out by The Times’s David Chen, came after HUD released a vaguely worded and irrational proposal that involved reducing the value of housing vouchers for poor residents in some of the most expensive housing markets in the country. The proposed change was widely thought to have been rescinded after housing advocates and lawmakers raised a fuss. But a close look at the data shows that HUD still seems to be planning to enforce a part of the plan that would make it more difficult for large families to find larger apartments. The landlords have been quick to react. Faced with the prospect of Section 8 vouchers that pay less than fair-market rents, they have made it clear that they will simply refuse to deal with the program, especially in tight markets where they can pick and choose tenants. That will be a disaster for poor families with several children.

The insanity of this ideologically driven attack on Section 8 is underscored in a bipartisan book – written by two Republicans and two Democrats – just out from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard. The authors include two former housing secretaries: Jack Kemp, a Republican, and Henry Cisneros, a Democrat. The authors argue convincingly that the country is sacrificing both families and neighborhoods by hacking away at the most successful housing program in history.

The book, “Opportunity and Progress,” calls for restoring the sane bipartisan effort that produced the federal housing program in the first place. Most significantly, the authors urge Congress to insulate the housing program from partisan sniping by creating a national trust fund. Modeled on similar programs that work well at state and local levels, that national fund would be used to build, rehabilitate and preserve 1.5 million affordable apartments.

The proposal resembles one already pending in Congress, where a trust fund bill is bottled up in committee even though it has more than 200 sponsors. The bill, as originally introduced, would finance itself by redirecting a small portion of the profits from the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgage insurance fund.

This page is generally suspicious of dedicated funds, but, given the national housing crisis, it makes good sense to direct money earned from housing back into housing. The bill would certainly have wide support, if only the Republican leadership allowed it to be brought to the floor.