It is the summer of 2015 and I am already tired of the campaign season. Why do the campaigns start almost two years before the election? And there is so much money involved that citizens can easily become cynical. However, instead of tuning out, it might be the time to ask the candidates some hard questions about housing and community development. The only way the people take back their democracy is by participating and holding candidates accountable!
If you witness a debate among the candidates or attend a speech, ask the candidates questions about affordable housing and community development. See if their webpages have emails to which you can send questions. Read position papers of the candidates. Do they say anything about housing and community development and is it thoughtful?
Housing and community development is often overlooked and neglected. This is the case, I think, because these programs are perceived to be for poor/undeserving people. Most candidates think that housing and community development are not politically popular. They need to be educated. While most beneficiaries of housing and community development are low- and moderate-income, the entire country benefits if thoughtful and effective housing and community development programs can improve the economic well-being of low- and moderate-income people. If low- and moderate-income people live in revitalizing neighborhoods, they are more likely to be employed at livable wages. They are more likely to have access to good education. In the aggregate, if effective housing and community development programs improve the wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of people, then consumer demand increases, economic output increases, and unemployment decreases.
The following are some housing and community development positions. Observe how close the candidates come to these positions:
Restore Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budgets: As reported in a previous blog, as housing needs have increased, HUD budgets have been slashed. The budget for Section 8 vouchers to help very low income households pay the rent has not kept pace with rising rents while housing cost burdens for renters have increased. The HOME budget that provides subsidies for housing and homeownership programs has been cut by more than 60 percent between 2005 and 2012. The District of Columbia Department of Housing and Community Development has used HOME funding for, HPAP, its low downpayment program. Which candidates are clearest about the needs to increase HUD’s budget?
Strengthen the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA): As described in previous posts, CRA requires banks to meet the needs of communities. Federal agencies produce reports cards for banks that are publicly available and which rate banks on their lending, investment, and services in low- and moderate-income communities. CRA needs to be strengthened as applied to banks and needs to be expanded to cover other financial institutions including mortgage companies, insurance companies, and Wall Street investment banks. Do the candidates discuss CRA in their speeches and websites?
Foreclosure prevention and mediation: Frankly, one of the biggest policy failures of the Obama administration has been its foreclosure prevention program. While I agree with a number of the policy approaches of this administration, foreclosure prevention was not a large enough endeavor. The major program was the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) which offered banks financial incentives and subsidies to rework loans and reduce interest rates for homeowners facing foreclosure. Recent reports by an independent inspector general found that only 1.5 million people were assisted by HAMP but that 6.1 million experienced foreclosures during the time period. In addition, HAMP has $21 billion in unspent funds.
Some may say that the distressed homeowners brought this upon themselves by spending too much on housing and stretching their budgets too thin. However, when a problem reaches this magnitude, a more likely explanation is a rotten industry that was pedaling abusive loans on a large scale. Since homeowners were more sinned against than sinning and since the foreclosure crisis continues to impede the overall economic recovery, a fair question for candidates is will they continue this effort and make it more effective.
Promote neighborhood integration and revitalization: Recently, a columnist suggested that efforts to revitalize economically distressed neighborhoods should be abandoned in favor of using housing subsidies to move minority and lower income households to more affluent neighborhoods. This is a false choice. Over its 30 year history, Manna has pursued both neighborhood revitalization and integration. Do the candidates recognize the complexity of housing and neighborhood development and will they pursue policies and approaches that promote neighborhood integration and revitalization.
Secondary education that benefits all citizens: Various candidates have announced ambitious plans to provide subsidies and aid so that students do not confront high debt after they finish college. President Obama has proposed free community college for students that maintain acceptable performance. The President’s approach is a step forward. Post-secondary education policies and subsidies must include community colleges and vocational training as well as colleges. Otherwise, a large segment of the population served by Manna will not benefit and will still confront high housing costs because more opportunities to earn higher wages via education and training will not be available to them.
Granted, it is hard work to hold the candidates accountable and you may base your voting decisions on many factors in addition to housing and community development. I took a quick glance at some of the candidate websites and they do not seem geared at this point to stimulate dialogue between the citizens and the candidates in the manner of Congressional websites (you can at least send an email to a member of Congress asking them to respond to your opinion). Yet, keep these issues in mind as you evaluate candidates and take advantage of opportunities to ask them hard questions. It is the only way in the long run to hold them accountable for promoting a more prosperous future for everyone.
Josh Silver is the Development Manager at Manna, Inc. Prior to his time at Manna, Josh served as Vice President of Research & Policy at NCRC. Josh is an avid District sports fan and loves spending time with his daughter.