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Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Millennial Housing Commissions

Contribution to a National Policy on Housing and Urbanization 

In 2000 Congress established two Commissions, the Millennium Housing Commission and the Commission on Affordable Housing and Health Facilities for Seniors in the 21st Century.  Their reports, “Meeting Our Nations Housing Challenges” and “A Quiet Crisis,” can be the starting point for a National Housing Policy.  

These Reports give us an overall look at the history of American policies and practices.  They demonstrate the importance of housing to human and community development, to education and employment, to crime prevention and family stabilization.  They pose the issues for housing in America.  They assume and render national values related to housing and community development.  They collect data that identify existing gaps and project future needs.  They show how federal programs have worked; and they make excellent recommendations in relation to these programs.  

However, most of their recommendations were broad and without any provision for follow up.  Indeed many were not seriously considered for action either by executive or legislative branches of government.  Indeed many were actively opposed by the executive and ignored by the legislature.  And housing practices in the first decade of the 21st century were primarily reactions to crises: terrorist attacks, floods, fires, and foreclosures.  Many were victims of ideological bickering.  

The Reports presented few concrete goals and measurable objectives.  They assumed that housing programs were generally sound, and simply needed to be extended.  They assumed homeownership as a source of wealth, not of impoverishment.  They did not anticipate the consequent housing bubble and its popping. 

They also assumed without question that the primary role for the federal government is to provide incentives and resources so that the private sector could use the market to satisfy the needs and fill the gaps.  They did not examine the costs and efficiencies of government financing directly versus government financing indirectly by tax incentives and insuring risk.  

While there was mention of housing related to jobs, community amenities, and smart growth, the Reports showed little link to energy, transportation, and land use policies.  There was no examination of urbanization, air and water needs, and global warming.  

For the most part there was no consideration of strategy and no plan for implementation.  There was mainly an acceptance, with little examination, of the mechanisms and agencies that the federal government was using to carry out housing programs.  In short the Commissions do not present a housing and urban policy, nor was that their intent which is evidence by their call for one. 



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?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Models for a Public Ethic

We think through models--sometimes referred to as metaphors or images or symbols.

Science--which means "knowledge" but is the most formal and, most would say, highest form of knowledge--develops models to explain observation or experience and then sets up more observations to collect more data to either refine, reject, or prove its models for explanation. Science, the great scientists affirm, is a highly imaginative acivity. Its results are often fantastic. But what sets it apart from fantasy or fideism is its commitment to verification--making the model fit the facts or the data of observation.

In our history we humans have used many metaphors to answer the question into human values and behavior, the quest for a good or fulfilling life, the secret of human happiness. Among them are: 1) foundation like that of a building or even the universe, 2) balance like that of the scale which the goddess of justice holds, 3) tool like a knife that works to carve a beautiful figure, cut a path to the sea, or kill an animal for food, 4) pact like a marriage covenant, business contract, agreement among friends or treaty among foes, and perhaps the most recent 5) the metaphor of metaphor itself like a fractal or a complexity model of science itself. Each of these give rise to the various models of ethics: Revealed ethics, natural ehics, ethics of proportionality, utilitarian ethics, social contractualism, and postmodern ethics.

All these images are useful I think for getting a handle on our present unexamined ethics towards the creation of a new ethic, a Public Ethic, that can critique our present actions and their assumptions, that can evaluate our policies and their consequences, and that can reform the institutions through which we habituate our behaviors. I think the new Public Ethic will subsume and so include the other models, culminating in Progressive Pragmatics which shall indeed be the model that I shall propose. I also think that this is an ethic subject to refinement and development and verification by experience.

To be continued.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Why a Public Ethic?

An Ethic is Public when it 1) is inclusive and accessible, 2) anticipates consequences on others, 3) advances public space, and 4) can be reformed.   Transparency, responsibility, participative, and accountable are the hallmarks of a Public Ethic.

The piece in the NY Times today by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn demonstrates our need for a new Public Ethic.  The ethical approach of a Bernie Madoff, Wall Street, and the SEC were totally guided by short term private interests of a few.  They were elitist and secretive.  They had no concern for the effect of their practices on others.  They destroyed trust--the bonds of the public realm. They fought or hid from review and evaluation.  

This is the ethic that has been promoted by our economic institutions and our political rhetoric and sanctified by religious doctrines and churches which teach private benevolence over social justice and personal mores over public good.  

The challenge of new republican order, which will hopefully be created during the next administration, is to 1) reform the institutions (as Lewis and Einhorn are suggesting), 2) restore the trust, 3) limit private agrandizment, and 4) be open to all.

A renewed public ethic reconizes that a public is both constituted by and yet transcends personal interests, values, and affiliations and that the Public is constituted by and transcends all publics.    

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Beyond Clan Ethics

We see what clan ethics is producing in the mid-East, Africa, the Balkans, and the America's. Action our of cultural difference often based in territory and sanctified by religion leads to mistrust, suspicion, blame, and violence--even that of war and genocide.   

The different is totally Other, a violator of the gods' laws, a threat to existence, and therefore alien.   Language, color, race, ritual, lifestyle, sex--all become signs of the alien, godless and without spirit, that must be confined, defeated, or even eradicated--for the sake of the homeland and usually in god's name.

These ethics will no longer do.   The old time religions are deficient.  The economics of winners and losers and the politics of domination are killing us all by destroying the very conditions of our being human.  

We have entered an era of instant communication, of global marketplaces, of shared planetary effect, of weapons of world-wide destruction.  An ethic of the tribe, an ethics based on religion, nationality, or an indiviualist economic ideology will be out of sync with our new reality.

So we must together, across tribal, national, religious, and political boundaries search for a new public ethic with the folowing characteristics: universality, inclusiveness, accessibility, stability. And as soon as we assert that our religion or nation or economy has the true and correct way of being and acting, we relapse into tribalism.  Beware of those with staunch beliefs, invariable principles, and ultimate truths whether achieved by revelation or reason. They are the obstacles to our common achievement of a Public Ethic.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A New Public Ethic

I have a relative who goes to Mass everyday he can. With his Church officials, he also opposes same sex marriage and the freedom of a newly pregnant woman to choose to abort her fetus; and he thinks that these should be enforced by government. He also supports all military actions by government. He also drives on government supported highways and takes advantage of every government real estate program he can.

Yet, influenced by Hate Radio, he believes that government spending, taxes, and regulations are evil and need to be stopped. He sees no inconsistency with his positions.

Ideology, in the sense of absolute beliefs, do not admit of thought. Indeed faith supplants reason according to religious ideologues.

The Public Ethic, John Dewey demonstrated in the last century is Pragmatic Progressivism. But Progressive Pragmatism should not be understood as relativism or survivalism or acting without value moorings. Progressive pragmatism is not just "what works." Because "what works" or what is considered "progress" always presumes principles.

Indeed Reagonomics, the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and the so-called free market and laissez-faire capitalism work. The question is: work for whom?

Most of the ministers of reactionary economic and political theologies, including the hate radio preachers, are indeed pragmatic. Their preaching works well for them even if it really doesn't for so many of their dittohead listeners.

I contend that, with the present election, America and perhaps the world, are nearing the harbor of a new progressive pragmatics--a new public ethic. That is hopeful for the species. It is that public ethic that I want to examine and show how it indeed can advance the humanity and the conditions that sustain us.

More later.