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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Next American Dream: Toward a National Housing Policy

I was going to entitle this essay Toward a New Housing Policy.  However, I do not think we even have an old one.

 What we have is a bunch of programs, some of them excellent, many in need of overhaul.  They were created by Congress going back to the last time we did have a broad look at the urban and housing needs of the country in an era very different from our own and then added to from time to time.  They were also adopted by state legislatures when federal programs did not reach far enough.  Sometimes new programs were added after community organizations developed responses to local conditions.  Many of the programs were allowed to be less effective and more expensive in order to meet the ideology of certain legislators and their constituents.  All these programs need to be reviewed in the light of current technologies, newly discovered approaches, and future challenges—that is, in the light of a national housing and urban policy

 We also have a fragmented federal housing agency, divided into silos administering the various programs, and often out of touch with the real issues of cities and their partners in the field.  Program administrators often do not confer with one another; and this means that rules of one program may not fit the rules of another.  Therefore, field workers, partners, and customers in communities can become confused as to how to work these programs together much less with other state and local programs.  The agency needs to be integrated in itself and with other federal, state, and local agencies by a comprehensive vision, a collective mission, a national commitment, and a restructured high performance organization.                         

We are now in the midst of a housing market crisis partially caused by the lack of direction and confusion among programs and their lack of applicability to the present situation.  The danger is that we will merely react with more programs without looking at our preferred values and directions as a people and without considering long ranged consequences and collateral damage.  

And so in the midst of this housing crisis and with a new Administration taking the helm, I suggest we look at our housing situation, programs, resources, and directions.  I urge that we create a national housing policy by which we can shape our directions and programs and restructure our agencies. 

The New Deal with the creation of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934 and the US Housing Act of 1937 did embody a national policy and created key programs for working Americans—usually new immigrant families, lower paid workers, and returning veterans in our cities.  But that policy, with all the Housing Act’s subsequent amendments, is no longer comprehensive, not generally known and accepted, nor providing guidance.  The Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s too late extended housing support and services to the newest immigrants to industrial cities, African Americans, and to other Americans left out of previous programs. 

When I was a young community worker in Chicago in the 1970s, I directly experienced the results of the old policy and practice—a racially and economically divided city, large concentrations of poverty, urban slums and suburban sprawl.  The leaders with whom I worked organizing the Contract Buyers League uncovered the true source of racial segregation in our cities.  After WW II federally insured mortgages (VA and FHA) were not available in areas at risk of losing value.  And all areas in which black families were moving were considered high risk.  This led to middle men buying homes that European Americans were leaving in panic and selling the homes at twice the price to black families on land installment contract.  Variations of this practice were found in many cities in which black families, fleeing a Jim Crow South, were seeking jobs.  A little later, large investments in public housing and urban renewal, concentrated the poor and usually people of color into huge, dense, often unmanageable housing. 

In the 1980s, as a community organizer assisting leadership to build a regional organization in Santa Clara Valley, I saw the results of laissez faire land use planning and energy policy that assumed freeways, theme parks, and the limitless expansion of suburbs.  Housing prices continued to be tied to the rising income of the new professionals and service workers of Silicon Valley.  Also the institutions for the chronically mentally ill were closed, temporary group homes were established, and chronic homelessness spread.  

In the 1990s, as director of a large association of inner-city and older suburban neighborhood organizations in Cleveland, I worked with the results not only of FHA discrimination, public housing concentration of poverty, urban renewal grasp of land for the wealthy, auto-centered transportation and land use policies, but also the loss of jobs and population through deindustrialization. 

Now in the first decade of the new century, I am with HUD in the Central Valley of California, an epicenter for the present housing market crisis with the highest rate of subprime mortgages, falling prices, and foreclosures.  Here I see it all come together.  I see the consequences of laissez faire housing practices, population growth, cheap agricultural land, and flawed transportation, energy, and land use policies.  

But I also see the opportunity of renewal in which housing policy and urbanization are connected to energy, land-use, environmental protection, and agricultural policies.  Here is a region where, with some bottom-up engagement and expert-enlightened direction, a new style of urbanization can be achieved that preserves prime agricultural lands, situates housing close to work and oriented to transportation, develops well-paying jobs through clean energy, builds sustainable mixed-income, walkable communities, and achieves much higher density and more interesting diversity through high design.  National and local housing policy can promote this in all regions of the country.  

The elements of a national housing policy might include: 

  • The values we hold as a people in relation to one another which shape the rights and responsibilities in housing people.
  • Historical and situational analysis: frank acknowledgment of the shortfalls of our past and existing housing practices.  A true assessment of the housing gap.
  • A vision of our cities and housing and the role of government vis-à-vis the private sector in urban and housing development.
  • The balance of affordable workforce rental housing and homeownership.
  • Housing and human development through health, education, jobs, community, public space and citizen action.
  • The mortgage industry: the right relationship of FHA, Ginnie Mae, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Rural Development, and the regulators the Federal Reserve Bank, FDIC, and Treasury. 
  • Housing and transportation, land use, the preservation of agriculture, clean air and water, and global warming
  • Special needs—an aging population, chronically ill or disabled, homeless families and youth
  • Housing and urbanization:  New urbanism, smart growth, form-based zoning, and creativity through advanced design.
  • Dimensions of a policy:  What is global, what is local?  What is urban and what is regional? What is public, what is private?
  • The organizational design of the federal housing and urban development agency to carry out the policy.
  • Short and long term strategies and actions.

I suggest that the creation of this policy be broadly consultative and inclusive, that it be culturally appropriate and community based, but also that it be centrally administered with an urgency and a strong commitment from the President. 

The steps to such a policy might entail: 

  • A Presidential declaration and order with timetable.
  • A broadly based commission led by the Secretary of HUD.
  • An extensive listening and local organizing process: state and local hearings; suggestion process from people, organizations, local jurisdictions; interviews with members of congress, mayors, housing industry leaders, housing activists.
  • Expert papers and discussion in house meetings, churches, community centers.
  • A Preliminary Report
  • A Whitehouse Conference
  • A Report to the President and to Congress with proposed legislation
  • Congressional hearings and legislation.  

What are the next, or really first, steps?  Let’s approach the new Secretary of HUD who will propose to President Obama a recommendation for the birth of a new policy to house all Americans in a way which promotes their full human development, which organizes safe communities and public space, which cleans and protects our planet, which promotes clean energy, and which fosters creativity in arts, education, science, industry, and spirituality.  A housing policy for an ideal Republic. 


Now what do you think?

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