Congress: Successful Programs Caught in Budget Brouhaha

4 min read

The budget battle between Congress and the White House is heating up, and among possible casualties are two housing programs that seem to enjoy strong bipartisan support.

These unlikely casualties are the Choice Neighbohoods Initiative (CNI), started in 2009, which has been used to comprehensively revitalize high-poverty public and assisted-housing communities; and the 1995-initiated HOME Investment Partnerships Program (HOME), which, now goes to about 650 jurisdictions across the country, providing, according to the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, (NAHRO), “critical gap funding for housing credit developments [and is] the largest federal block grant to state and local governments designed exclusively to create affordable housing for low-income households.”

The Obama Administration’s request of $250 million for funding CNI was recently cut to $20 million in the House Appropriations Committee, and to $65 million by the Senate Appropriations Committee; and funding for HOME was $1.06 billion in the President’s request, and $66 million in the bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee—a cut of 93 percent. (HOME as given $900 million by the House Appropriations Committee, much via essentially “zeroing out” the Housing Trust Fund.)

Even rough estimates of the impact of such cuts are attention-getting. Just to cite one example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says funding HOME at the Senate level for one year would mean decreasing by nearly 40,000 the number of affordable housing units built.

These threatened cuts have little to do with housing and everything to do with the new “regular order” in the congressional appropriations process. The Obama Administration and Congress agreed in the Budget Control Act of 2011 to cap spending starting in fiscal year 2013-2014. After feeling the effect of arbitrary spending limits in 2013, legislators suspended what’s called “sequestration” until FY 2016—which means limits on spending based on politics in 2011, and not realities in 2015, are now scheduled to go into in effect.

“Every area of government activity has programs like CNI and HOME that are highly regarded and nonetheless face a severe decrease in funds,” says an official of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “It’s not a responsible way to make decisions about spending money.”

What will happen next? When Congress returns from its summer recess, it will confront a midnight, September 30 deadline for taking action before the end of the fiscal year—otherwise, the government shuts down. “We used to put in all-nighters to have everything done by the beginning of the new fiscal year on October 1,” says someone who has participated in budget battles since the 1980s, “but now those days are long gone. Congress may pass a continuing resolution and then figure out all kinds of ways to play brinkmanship.”

In the meantime, CNI and HOME remain in the budgetary crosshairs. “It shows how out-of-control things can become,” says one developer. “Both programs have broad constituencies and broad appeal and proven track records, and yet they are in danger.” Explanations flow through Washington, DC at the speed of rumor. “We had nothing against either CNI or HOME,” says a spokesperson for the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We had a limited amount of money and we had to cut somewhere.” Analysis posted by NAHRO captures some of the nuances:

Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) [of the Senate Appropriations Committee] said that she was forced to cut HOME to avoid cuts to other programs that would evict families from their homes. However, Chairwoman Collins also mentioned the harmful 2011 newspaper articles chronicling alleged misuse of HOME funding ….

Some Members of Congress suggest that even deeper levels of machination are in play, and that next year’s funding for CNI and HOME has been cut in meaningless bills everyone knows the President would veto, and the “real” bills with “real” figures have yet to emerge.
“People should tell their representatives they don’t like how things are being done,” says an affordable housing advocate. “We shouldn’t be cutting proven programs and we shouldn’t be making important decisions in a haphazard, avoid-an-emergency way.”