In Defense of HUD and Change

3 min read

On June 11, the House Financial Services Committee hosted a HUD Oversight Hearing. Committee Chair Jeb Hensarling’s (R-TX) opening statement quoted President Lyndon Johnson: “We have declared unconditional war on poverty. Our objective is total victory.”

Mr. Hensarling acknowledged Johnson’s bold vision and noted that HUD was positioned as the war’s “main weapon – combatting poverty, rebuilding our cities, and making housing more affordable for all.” Mr. Hensarling also bemoaned that “poverty and its consequences are as bad as they were fifty years ago…millions more Americans fall below the poverty line today, including an unbelievable one out of five children. This is shameful…it’s not just the poor who find the cost of housing soaring beyond their means, it is almost everyone. This is unacceptable.”

As I’m sure most of our readers will agree, poverty and affordable housing get too little attention on Capitol Hill so I am glad to hear that Mr. Hensarling is also troubled by the seeming intractableness of these issues.

Mr. Hensarling continues to assert, “to achieve this unenviable record, HUD has already spent over $1.6 trillion in its history and is asking for nine percent increase…For whatever good HUD does it clearly has not won the War on Poverty.” Reasonable people may differ on the correct mix of policy solutions that will best resolve issues of poverty and housing affordability – this is what the political process is for and I think it is important that we always be open to new ideas and solutions, particularly when the stakes are so high.

The Chairman is correct that we have not yet won the War on Poverty, but I do bristle at the implication that the HUD programs we so successfully deploy aren’t making any difference. I think this conclusion was more an issue of public perception than reality.

The fact of the matter is, we as an industry do not do nearly as good a job talking about the economic impact and life-changing outcomes resulting from HUD’s multifamily programs including HOME, Section 8, HOPE VI, CNI, FHA insurance, CDBG, etc. when we talk to our elected officials or the press as we do when we are talking about the LIHTC or the NMTC, which are well-liked on both sides of the political aisle.

We in the industry know that many, if not most, LIHTC properties (or the residents therein), which everyone loves so well, must also leverage some other form of federal housing assistance to be successful, but it is clear that many policy makers are not making that connection. I am confident that things would be much worse but for HUD’s programs and the lesson here is that we must redouble our efforts to educate our legislators and share with them the critical role HUD and its programs play in our work as affordable housing and community development professionals.

I agree with Mr. Hensarling’s conclusion that, “It’s time to bring a new focus and new ideas on how to best help the poor in our society. On this purpose, which is a moral purpose, there should be no debate.” But I also want to caution: let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

We must explore new ways to grow our economy and create more and better jobs. And we must also remember that along with education, access to safe, stable, affordable housing is one of the fundamental building blocks that is necessary to attain and maintain a job in this new economy.