Trump Housing Policy

The Coming Budget Will be a Disaster for Housing, but Housers Are Part of the Problem

"The Marriage of Real Estate and Money" (Tom Otterness, 1996)

"The Marriage of Real Estate and Money" (Tom Otterness, 1996)

Republican-controlled Congress passed a major hurdle in their plan to radically reshape the nation’s tax code last week by narrowly passing a budget for 2018 in a close 216-212 vote.  The narrow spread included 20 Republican defections, which is a clear signal of the considerable challenges that lay ahead.  Regardless, this process will be a disaster for housing policy – affordable housing or otherwise.  The fact that this process is proceeding in rapid, secretive, and reckless fashion barely registers anymore shows how far our legislative process has come apart. It also shows how little the housing community can do to prevent this damage and how little it understands the changing landscape of national politics.

I have written extensively about three major threads since the beginning of the Trump Era (although they originate well before) that continue to dominate housing policy discussions. This budget (which is not law yet and is still largely unknown as policy) reflects these trends. The response the housing community has to each also shows how much it needs to change its approach and fight for a simple, clear cause: housing as a right.

1. Down with Public Housing

First, President Trump, despite his incoherencies, has been steadfast in his utter indifference to affordable housing, especially public housing. Given other mounting evidence, it seems more likely that he holds the people (or those people, more aptly) that rely on it in contempt. 

Appointing Secretary Carson has worked out exactly as the President had hoped and as housing advocates had feared.  HUD will face devastating cuts whether the Secretary understands them or not. The 13% across-the-board cuts long-promised by the administration are starting to take form and no one suffers more than the poor Americans who rely on housing vouchers, community block grants, and of course, public housing. 

Public housing authorities across the country will be further starved of funding and will likely turn increasingly to measures such as the Obama-era program Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) that provides upfront funding by turning public housing into privately-leased Section 8 units.  Seen as a necessity, or even as a progressive fail-safe by many housers, this program will only weaken cash-strapped public housing authorities and undermine their broader mission. Housers who support RAD will live to regret those decisions instead of rallying around a robust defense of public housing on its merits.

Saying Secretary Carson is unqualified or simply dumb doesn't change the narrative on public housing.  Saying the President doesn't support or respect poor Americans' struggles won't change the support most Americans have for public housing.  Making the case that public housing - and greater federal involvement in affordable rental housing - is good for the country and good for everyone - city or suburb - is the only way to effectively fight the Trump administration.  Right now, the playbook is wracking up losses. It's time to change it.

2. Up With LIHTC

Second, Congress continues to gaslight the housing community about the effectiveness of the main national affordable housing policy – the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC).  Enacted after the last major tax overall in 1986, it has created over 3 million housing units representing 90% of all affordable units built during the period.

That’s seen as a success by many well-meaning actors in housing despite the fact that it is has demonstrably failed to provide the volume of units our country needs.  99% of US counties are in an affordable housing crisis. When the only policy explicitly designed to address affordable housing is failing that broadly, it is irresponsible to defend the status quo. But that is largely what is happening at the moment.

The legitimate fear from this proposed tax cut plan - I won't pretend it's some nebulous "tax reform" - is that lower corporate rates will dramatically weaken the incentive to partake in the LIHTC program. What will be left unsaid is that relying on the private sector to build affordable housing through tax incentives is inherently and obviously flawed.

Instead of arguing for a larger policy shift, many housers will try to defend LIHTC and, by extension, the status quo of federal housing priorities. When, inevitably, both parties do offer some type of carve out for LIHTC to remain attractive, this will be hailed as a victory. We should know better by now. We should be arguing for more policies like community land trusts that offer the same type of decentralized, local control that many communities want, while rejecting the speculative component that largely dictates development today.

3. Upside Down on Homeownership

Third, we have learned nothing from the 2008 mortgage crisis.  Not only have we failed to address the dangers of increased financialization of the housing market, or the more fundamental challenges of slow wage-growth, rising debt, and geographic inequality that is crushing the housing market, but we have never rectified that promoting homeownership for 80 years has been a disaster for our country.

Homeownership has undoubtedly pushed millions of Americans into the middle class but it has also prevented millions more from doing so.  Wealth inequality across racial lines has increased in recent decades.  Racial segregation has increased in recent decades.  The environmental and social costs of single-family suburban sprawl will only get worse as a generation of baby boomers age and realize no one is coming to buy their homes at what they think they are worth.  Nobel-prize winning economist Robert Schiller has long debunked that houses automatically appreciate in the US. In fact, on average, they haven't at all since the 1940s. That's only going to get worse in many parts of the country.

The only minutely (unintentionally) progressive element of the tax cut plan currently under consideration is reducing the mortgage interest deduction, which disproportionately benefits wealthier Americans. This is being met with fierce resistance by the housing industry. It's not hard to see why homeowners and housing developers wouldn't want to support massive tax cuts for corporations and the top percent of earners.  Reducing the MID to pay for tax cuts isn't what many housing reformers had in mind, but it shows how hard it will be to try such a thing under any circumstances.

This is because treating housing as a tool of wealth creation as opposed to one for shelter provision is the definitive policy choice of 20th century America.  We have built a nation on this principle (along with car ownership, which of course is directly tied to housing.)  There are many ills facing our society today and our housing policy explains a lot of them.

To truly change this, we must first accept a blatantly obvious reality: treating housing like an asset has failed.  We have commodified it, securitized it, and speculated on it like it’s something less important than a basic human right.  Many elements of our country have profited handsomely from this.  Indeed, go to any real estate conference now and there will be a technocratic consensus that “the market is doing well” while ignoring the larger truth: our society is not doing well.

Housers must recognize the opportunity that we have to dramatically change the discussion on housing by rejecting the 20th century concept of housing.  Millions of Americans are hurting and are angry.  Ideas that might have once been considered 'radical' by some people - even many housing advocates - are now entering the conversation and public policy. Most Americans recognize that the old way we constructed our politics isn't working. 

We must extend that realization to the built environment and offer a positive, actionable vision for a better future.  Housers have to stop accepting a failed premise and fight to establish a new one. It starts with saying simply, proudly, and forcefully that housing is a right. 

Secretary Carson as Useful Idiot

But don't let him, or us, off the hook (housingwire)

But don't let him, or us, off the hook (housingwire)

When Dr. Ben Carson was announced as the nominee for HUD Secretary, it was pointed out that he had never worked in government and had no experience in housing.   When he took questions before the Senate, it was pointed out that he barely mentioned anything to do with housing (and was barely promoted to).  And when he went on his listening tour shortly after becoming Secretary, it was pointed out that he praised the results of programs that would likely be cut or eliminated by his boss.  Now that the budget is officially here, and does include devastating cuts to HUD, it’s safe to say that Secretary Carson is as bad as housing advocates feared.  But truthfully, he has been everything the Trump Administration wanted him to be.  The implication for our country is disheartening.

I know it’s harsh to refer to Secretary Carson as a “useful idiot” but he is the literal definition of the term.  President Trump is cynically using Dr. Carson to go along with policies that the doctor (and, frankly, the President) doesn’t fully understand for purposes he may also not fully appreciate.  Dr. Carson seems quite content with the arrangement.

It is unlikely that Secretary Carson was consulted or even notified of the budget cuts outlined for HUD.  I’m not entirely convinced he knows what is in the budget. Not that the department is even staffed enough to have anyone around to tell him. Despite Dr. Carson’s testimony during the nomination to defend the mission and programs of his department, he has done nothing of the sort and never intended to.

This was all from the White House.  The department faces cuts of 15%, or $7.4 billion, which would include the elimination of bedrock programs like the Community Development Block Grant, the Housing Trust Fund, HOME investment partnerships, capital funding for public housing, and many other regional rental assistance programs.  Hundreds of thousands of poor, young, old, disabled, or otherwise vulnerable Americans would lose housing assistance in the midst of the affordable housing crisis.

Secretary Carson has still been useful by putting a genial face on what is a dark, cruel vision of public policy that has emerged as the only through-line in the Trump Administration.  Secretary Carson has made national headlines for two statements that reflect the naked truth of the Trump Administration but spares the President of having to say them himself: Fuck the Poor.

First he said that public housing, or presumably any subsidized housing, shouldn’t be “too comfortable” for residents because they won’t be motivated to find other housing.  Second (and not for the first time) he called poverty a “state of mind."

These comments are horrifying and stupid for several reasons. 

Let’s look at the first statement.  The logic that public/assisted housing should only be temporary was abandoned decades ago by HUD because it never made sense to begin with.  Providing permanently affordable housing for low-income families is a worthy public investment because it creates more economic opportunity for individuals and communities, reduces public spending in other supportive services, and maintains a mixing of income (and by extension, racial) groups that is fundamentally necessary for the health of our civil society.

If residents have the opportunity to move up the economic and housing latter, then great, American mobility is working.  But, more accurate to today, if they have to stay economically, or want to stay socially, they shouldn’t be punished with Spartan accommodations. Where are the good jobs and opportunities in our economy today? Decades of terrible economic policy have trapped millions of Americans in all corners of the country.  The idea that this housing shouldn’t be “too comfortable” is not only cruel and condescending, it is ignorant and classist.

Which brings us to Secretary Carson’s second statement about poverty being a state of mind.  This statement is so utterly wrong on its merit, so astonishingly ahistorical, and so morally debased that in a healthier society, we would have demanded and received his resignation. 

Our brand of American exceptionalism has always had a darker tone when it comes to poverty.  We romanticize the idea that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough, and point to any number of anecdotal stories to show this kind of success.  However, this allows us to ignore the larger structures in our society that have exploited the poor and vulnerable from the founding of our republic to present day – from Native Americans to slaves, to immigrants, to women and children, to veterans and foreign workers.

It’s why our national consciousness remembers the wagon trains of western expansion more than the violent removal and murder of Native Americans to achieve it.  It’s why we recall the great industrial expansion during the Gilded Age through the mansions of the robber barons without remembering their violent suppression of labor strikes at places like Tompkins Square in 1874 or on Grand Street in 1886. Its why we gloss over MLK's true message of economic justice for a waterer-down version of inclusiveness.

Dr. Carson’s views on poverty are no doubt shaped by his own exceptional life story (which, unlike the President, he achieved on his own.)  He has made a lucrative second career as a writer and motivational speaker by telling willing audiences that he overcame poverty and achieved greatness, reaffirming this great narrative of America by personifying it himself.

But is everyone blessed with Dr. Carson’s brain? How many other poor young men and women – who likely had equally strong and dedicated mothers - were unable to achieve even modest economic prosperity?  For every Dr. Carson, there are a hundred anonymous poor who, if even acknowledged by our broader society, are blamed for their condition. 

That this blame is also leveled by a man like Dr. Carson, who should know better given his background, his stated religious beliefs, and his position in government, shows everything that is wrong with our country today.

We can debate the likelihood of the cuts in the president’s budget actually passing and take some hope in knowing that many won’t.  We can hide behind the fact that Dr. Carson is simply inexperienced and overwhelmed in government. We can tell ourselves that the economy is doing well, that it could even improve, and that anyway it’s only a small portion of people impacted by these cuts.

But this thinking would let us all off the hook.  We can’t turn away from what is staring right in front of us.  Our society is growing crueler.  Our government, and even President Trump, is only a reflection of this. Our illness runs much deeper.

We are looking at the challenges posed by globalization, coming automation, and climate change with tax cuts for the wealthy and program cuts for everyone else. We are blaming the poor for their condition and excusing the mega rich for theirs.  We are lying about the past, ignoring the true problems of the present, and betraying the future - for nothing. 

Yes, we can start by demanding Secretary Carson step down.  We can continue by blocking the president’s housing agenda (and general agenda) and voting him out (if it comes to that). But we must acknowledge that the cruelty running through our society is a much larger plague that must be eradicated. 

We must discover a new civic spirit and a new commitment to our shared republican values of liberty, justice, and peace. We must acknowledge that these values are only viable when every citizen has access to them.  We must create a government that reflects the supremacy of collective effort and shared benefit over exploitation and selfish gain.  We must reject the ideology that says we are on our own.  That has never been anything but an excuse for the bigger fish to eat the little ones.  America is greater than that.

The Trump Age: Nobly Save or Meanly Lose?

What can we expect? (inquisitor)

What can we expect? (inquisitor)

Today Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States.  He comes into office having lost the popular vote by 3 million to Secretary Clinton, after experiencing the lowest approval rating of any incoming president on record, all while under a shroud of unprecedented allegations of foreign meddling in the election.  He takes the most powerful office in the land with a federal government dominated by his questionably-aligned party, facing a decimated and rudderless opposition, under the confused, delegitimized eyes of the press.  He enters a world stage that is suffering a near universal retreat of liberal values and the rise of ethno-nationalism in the wake of ever-increasing inequality, temperatures, and sea levels. And yet, as of today, many claim not to know what to expect from the man.

Of course there are reasons for this confusion.  President Trump ran a campaign that oscillated wildly between standard Republican positions, shocking hard-right proposals, and incoherent populist rhetoric.  I won’t spend time rehashing the litany of lies, contradictions, or fantasies that spewed from the candidate anymore than I will spend time rehashing the offensive, irresponsible, and dangerous language that he used. 

But we know many things about the Trump Administration based on the Trump Campaign. First, some successes: Mr. Trump has a genius for social media and showmanship, has an ear for the underrepresented voices in America (in media if not government at any rate), and a knack for slaying the sacred cows of our conventional politics.  These were assets for gaining attention in a shallow, media-soaked campaign environment. 

Some of these assets no doubt could be refreshing in government.  Mr. Trump may be a coastal elite who inherited his wealth and surrounds himself with all its trappings and sycophants (which will be a common theme in his cabinet), but he is also clearly outside of the Washington scene.  Questioning long-held assumptions about American domestic and foreign policy is healthy and long overdue.  Expanding debate to include ideas from vast segments of forgotten regions and people is an imperative that could potentially reinvigorate the trust and enthusiasm for our republic’s institutions. Whether he uses his brashness to these ends or not, President Trump will have permanently disrupted the neo-liberal consensus. The electorate has said demonstrably that this consensus has failed and that they want something else. It is about to get what it wants.

Now, the failures: Mr. Trump has consistently proven to be unorganized, incoherent, and disinterested.  These are three attributes that don’t translate into strong governance.  As good as Candidate Trump was at getting attention and throwing (or tweeting) popular bombs at the establishment (and many vulnerable individuals and groups), his campaign was a chaotic mess that fell backwards into a victory that they didn’t see coming just like everyone else. Winning softens that narrative (as it does with any presidential campaign) but it doesn’t mean those trends will change in the White House.  There is little doubt that the Trump Administration will be just as chaotic, if not more chaotic.

This is because, whatever Trumpism represents, it is not a cohesive agenda or ideology, but a cult of personality.  The three axes running through the Trump Administration – orthodox Republicanism, alt-right populism, and retro nationalism – have few areas of overlap and many more areas of direct opposition.  Ugly conflicts will be inevitable.  There are a lot of big egos new to government walking through the door.  The one thing these factions will have in common will be competing for and relying on the whims of the President to choose sides on an issue-by-issue, day-to-day basis. Again, this is not a formula for effective governance (and will do significant damage to the institutions and agencies within this orbit that would normally have some autonomy).  

Instead of a focused, on-message White House, we will see one with lots of noise, lots of backtracking, and lots of blame shifting. However, that circus could (perhaps intentionally) distract the public from what should be a sustained if unsteady unraveling of domestic policy. For all the chaos over the last 18 months, Mr. Trump has held remarkably consistent views on most things for a much longer period of time.

More often than not, President Trump's brand of orthodox Republicanism, one with a messianic hard-right flavor, will dictate the Trump agenda. This will mean dramatic budget cuts to most discretionary agencies, the termination of many smaller programs and departments, privatization and deregulation, and a general sustained federal retreat from many policy fronts. America will become a place with distinctly sharper edges and higher boundaries between its winners and losers.

Housing is a good example. It is unlikely that the Trump Administration believes in many of the goals of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (which is by no means the only federal agency that impacts housing).  Those goals include assisting poor Americans with direct housing costs, supporting affordable housing construction, enforcing fair housing laws, and overseeing the vast agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that subsidize homeownership for millions of middle-class Americans.  Aside from perhaps this final goal, none of the three factions in the Trump Administration will want to continue those policies.

Mr. Trump’s personal interactions with HUD consisted of being sued for racial discrimination. His Secretary of Treasury candidate Steven Mnuchin profited from the housing crash of 2007 and its aftermath.  Candidate Trump’s repeated usage of ‘inner-cities’ and ‘urban renewal’ reveal either a deeply cynical tendency to dog whistle to his white working-class base and/or a persistent ignorance of the changing shape of our cities and the larger spectrum of minority experiences in America. 

His pick of Dr. Carson to run HUD encapsulates this indifference-to-outright hostility perfectly. I, and many others, have already discussed why Dr. Carson is unfit to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  Nothing in his Senate hearing changed that judgment. 

Like his boss, he is unaware of or unwilling to recognize the history of government-sanctioned segregation in our communities that has perpetuated multi-generational poverty for millions of Americans.  Instead, Dr. Carson has spoken of poverty as being a choice.

Like his boss, Dr. Carson is entirely unfamiliar with the majority of activities HUD undertakes or that most of them don’t involve aid to black Americans stuck in “inner-city hell-holes.” 

Dr. Carson also seems unwilling to (or, perhaps more troubling, unaware of the need to) challenge Mr. Trump’s dated and offensive characterizations of urban America. This doesn’t bode well for the priorities of HUD under his watch.  It’s difficult to see Dr. Carson having the stomach for defending HUD’s mission from the White House let alone for budget fights on the Hill. President Trump will have near-free reign to dismantle much of HUD with an affable face at the helm and willing co-conspirators in Congress. This will have an untold impact on millions of struggling Americans.

Because of who Mr. Trump is as a man and what divergent worlds he has rode to power on, we truly don’t know a lot about what will happen over the next four years.  President Trump will have an immense amount of power to impact the lives of billions of people.  His lack of humility and leadership in the face of this responsibility give many reasons for progressives and conservatives alike to fret.

But he is no king.  It will be up to the institutions set up by the Founding Fathers to check his authoritative impulses.  It will be up to the free press to challenge him and to reassert its role as a vital public advocate.  And most importantly, it will be up to us as citizens, regardless of whom we voted or didn’t vote for, to remain vigilant, engaged, and hopeful.  The stakes for our republic, our world, are real and they are high.  To paraphrase President Lincoln, over the next four years, we shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last great hope of earth.

Carson Heading HUD Would be an Insult to Everybody

Asleep, but figuratively or literally? (fallssociety)

Asleep, but figuratively or literally? (fallssociety)

In 1966, Dr. Robert C. Weaver became the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the first black man to have a Cabinet-level position in the federal government.  He had a Bachelors, Masters, and PhD from Harvard University and started in government during the New Deal as a member of FDR’s famous “Black Cabinet.”  He later worked in the Kennedy Administration and helped lay the groundwork for HUD, which was eventually created during President Johnson’s “Great Society” platform with Dr. Weaver envisioned at its head.  Though largely forgotten today (though his name is on the HUD Building in DC) Dr. Weaver’s influence on government and civil rights, forged through years of government work and policy execution, is a testament to what talented individuals can overcome and accomplish through a dedicated federal government.

So it is in surprisingly stark contrast this week that there have been strong indications that President-elect Trump has picked another black doctor - Dr. Ben Carson - for Secretary of the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development.  Though no official announcement has been made, Mr. Trump has floated the name on twitter and Dr. Carson, a former Presidential hopeful and accomplished brain surgeon with no government experience, has signified that he is considering the position.  If this does pan out, it would be an insult to every American.

Let’s start with the obvious: Dr. Carson is not at all qualified to run any government agency. Just ask him - a week earlier he took himself out of the running for any cabinet position because he didn’t think he was qualified to run a federal agency.  He is right. He has no experience in government and no experience in managing a large agency of any type, let alone one concerning housing.

Dr. Carson was clearly a talented doctor and an inspiring speaker, but he has never worked in housing (and has not show much aptitude for politics).  He has only commented on housing issues publicly a few times. In those cases, he has come out against fair housing policies and the Supreme Court ruling on disparate impact in Texas because they are ‘social engineering.”  That either shows a shocking ignorance towards the legacy of housing policies on economic segregation and inequality or a deep cynicism. I will give Dr. Carson the benefit of the doubt and assume it is ignorance.

In any case, Dr. Carson is not prepared to take over one of the most important federal agencies in government – tasked with managing $1 trillion of home mortgages and a $50 billion annual budget towards fair and affordable housing policies and legal defense for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Apparently, Mr. Trump felt Dr. Carson was qualified because: 1. He was born in a city (and presumably has lived in a few houses) and 2. He supported Mr. Trump early.  You could also easily add in a third reason: Dr. Carson is black.  Given Mr. Trump’s clear preference for older white men for his top positions (and the growing criticism for it), this was an easy, if entirely empty, gesture to make.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon in any Presidency for cabinet positions to be filled by unqualified loyalists or isolated figureheads. It has been especially true at HUD where many Presidents have placed token minority hires or personal loyalists who have been ignored (George Romney, Jack Kemp) or guilty of massive corruption (Samuel Pierce). So while there have been accomplished Secretaries in the past (Shaun Donovan comes to mind), HUD has largely been an afterthought for most Presidents. The fact that Mr. Trump has picked Dr. Carson is sadly not unprecedented.

However, what is unprecedented is the affordable housing crisis gripping the nation and crippling its long-term economic potential.  This blog has documented just how bad the crisis is and just how much it could damage our economic and social prosperity for generations.  It is simply too important an issue to be dismissed with such an abysmal appointment.

Picking Dr. Carson tells us much about what a President Trump will do for housing. At best he appears uninterested and likely to simply ignore the problem. Dr. Carson, unless he surprises, would not be a powerful advocate for housing and will not have a powerful voice in the administration.  Whether it’s the still-troubling status of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae or the systemic lack of affordable housing in our cities, there are too many issues in housing for President Trump to take such a dismissive approach about it.

At worst, President Trump will use Dr. Carson as cover while appointing undersecretaries like Rob Astorino from Westchester who would very likely peel back affordable housing policies and cease to enforce fair housing laws.  Dr. Carson could oversee HUD as it quietly retreats into underfunded irrelevance.  The federal government could stop defending poor residents against discrimination at the local or city level and allow the continued resegregation of our communities.  HUD could also likely enrich the private sector by dismantling mortgage assistance and other housing programs without addressing the needs for poorer homeowners and renters.

It remains to be seen what Dr. Carson will decide on, but that it is up to him – after just stating he wasn’t qualified for such a position – shows a troubling sign for what the Trump Administration will prioritize.  Rather than acknowledging the scale of problem facing the nation with housing and finding qualified people with the experience and ideas (whether one agrees with them or not) to tackle it, Mr. Trump has evidently thought little of policy implications and a lot about personal loyalty. This does not bode well for Americans across every type of home.