New Developments: Rome Wasn’t Built In a Day

4 min read

While reading on a recent flight back to Washington, I was really moved by two feature articles that together put into context how far we have come as a country in alleviating poverty – and how far we still have to go.

The September 28, 2019 issue of the Economist features a “Special Report on Poverty in America” that explores the changing nature of this issue. The report opens with a telling of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s visit to the impoverished community of Martin County, KY. Upon his return to Washington, LBJ immediately called for a, “National war on poverty…our objective: total victory,” ushering in his landmark Great Society initiative. The report observes that 55 succeeding years have had mixed results for Martin County, which remains deeply poor. Even after trillions of dollars have been deployed to anti-poverty initiatives, poverty itself remains a persistent and stubborn problem in many parts of the country. As a result, many Americans still feel what President Reagan expressed during his presidency: “We waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.”

Yet this report shows that when you delve into the data there have been remarkable successes. The report observes that safety net programs, such as food stamps and the earned-income tax credit, actually have had a significant and positive impact on low-income Americans, particularly the elderly.

The Great Society era safety net programs are powerful agents of change designed to specifically address 1960s and 1970s era challenges. But since then, research by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz of Harvard University demonstrates that, “The problem of poverty has evolved.” And so, even with the Great Society programs, breaking the cycle of poverty requires layering additional strategies. Chetty and his colleagues’ research demonstrates, for instance, that place matters, that children who grow up in areas of concentrated poverty have profoundly worse life outcomes. So, if we intervene early enough with affordable housing in neighborhoods, the safety net can then kick in and do its job. This message is now being spread via state Qualified Allocation Plans and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule (if the current efforts to roll it back are not successful). We are now on a good path and what is needed is time and patience.

But there are headwinds, which brings me to the second article, “As Homelessness Surges in California, So Does a Backlash,” which appeared in The New York Times on October 21. There is a broad acknowledgement that homelessness is a crisis in California and there are encouraging state government efforts to address this, including the successful HHH Ballot Initiative and the expansion of the state’s housing credit. But there is a record level of backlash against the homeless in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. There continue to be persistent efforts by NIMBYs to delay and block permanent supportive housing, as well as to hollow out safety net programs.

It is encouraging that we have recently been seeing affordable housing, homelessness and poverty gain traction in the public policy conversation and in campaigns for public office. But it is becoming increasingly clear to me that while we may be doing a good job creating awareness among politicians (getting them to groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings), continuing resistance shows we have not yet done a good enough job showing the public the necessity of affordable housing in alleviating poverty. There are 13 million kids living in poverty in the U.S. today and affordable housing is the ladder that can help them climb into the middle class. There is a real risk that public frustration and apathy at a local level will stymie our community investments before they have a chance to succeed. Our job is to stay focused, to not be deterred by increasingly hostile local opposition and efforts to reduce the federal role in affordable housing and community development, and to assume the role of ambassadors who tell the story of the success of affordable housing and advocate for the time we need to complete the job. Rome was not built in a day and neither is affordable housing.

Thom joined National Housing & Rehabilitation Association (NH&RA) in 2004 and currently serves as its as Executive Vice-President and Executive Director. NH&RA is a national trade association and peer-network for affordable housing and tax credit developers and related professionals including: investors, lenders, public agencies and professional advisers. Thom directs the association’s day-to-day operations including legislative and regulatory advocacy, committee activities, conferences and events, publications, financial management and strategic planning. Thom also serves as the Executive Director of the Tennessee Developers Council, a state-wide trade association for affordable housing developers and professionals active in Tennessee. In 2013 he spearheaded the launch of NH&RA's Preservation through Energy Efficiency Project, a major educational initiative supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Thom also serves on the Board of Directors for International Center for Appropriate & Sustainable Technology (iCAST) as well as the Advisory Board for its ResourceSmart program, a turn-key, cost-effective, green rehab provider for multifamily affordable and market-rate housing communities and nonprofit facilities. Thom is a frequent speaker at affordable housing, sustainable development and tax credit industry events and has been published in a variety of industry journals including Tax Credit Advisor, Independent Banker, and the Novogradac Journal of Tax Credit Housing. Thom also serves as the Associate Publisher of Tax Credit Advisor, a monthly magazine for tax credit and affordable housing professionals and is an Executive Vice-President at Dworbell Inc., a boutique association management and communications firm in Washington, DC. Thom was previously employed at a national lobbying firm focusing on financial services and technology issues. Prior to moving to Washington, Thom worked in media relations in the New York State Assembly and as a research assistant for New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen. Thom graduated Magna Cum Laude from Tufts University with a double major in Political Science and History.