Federal Cuts Undermine Local Efforts
It’s only been two months since California passed fifteen housing bills to address its affordable housing crisis, and the federal government is again up to its old tricks. The GOP tax bill reduces investment in affordable housing by $22 billion, while the massive cuts in HUD funding remain part of the budget proposal.
We have seen this scenario before.
When the start of urban gentrification in the late 1970’s made it imperative that the federal government increase housing assistance, the Reagan Administration slashed the HUD budget instead. Widespread visible homelessness resulted.
Thanks to federal inaction, homelessness has only worsened over time.
Ignoring the Federal Role
A story this week got a lot of attention, “Homeless explosion on West Coast pushing cities to the brink.” It claimed the homeless “victims are being left behind by the very things that mark the region’s success: soaring housing costs, rock-bottom vacancy rates and a roaring economy that waits for no one.”
Yet for all of its virtues the story includes a core omission: it fails to blame the federal government for failing to help house those unable to afford the private market. The entire article is about local causes of homelessness and the search for local solutions—but it ignores federal funding cuts, the 800 pound gorilla in the corner of the room.
Those unfamiliar with the homelessness crisis would never even know that a federal department of Housing and Urban Development existed. Not to mention it bearing chief responsibility for rising local homelessness.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson went unmentioned in the story. So did the huge budget cuts planned for HUD that would plunge hundreds of thousands more families into homelessness.
Nor was the estimated $22 billion cut to affordable housing triggered by the GOP tax cuts even noted in the article.
To be clear, the reporters wrote a solid story about how West Coast cities are combating rising homelessness. But we need stories now that build pressure for at least stopping the planned federal cuts. Instead, the story let the Trump Administration off the hook.
Why protect President Trump and Speaker Ryan while blaming local Democratic mayors and city officials for rising homelessness that increased federal housing assistance could remedy That question could be asked about media coverage of homelessness for decades. The media frames the local manifestation of homelessness as “solvable” through local solutions—even when we have a thirty plus year record of this proving impossible.
Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco officials all know they cannot make even a meaningful dent in homelessness without a massive increase in federal housing dollars. But when residents read stories that ignore the federal role, they mistakenly blame local officials for not taking the right actions.
It is a disconnection from housing funding realities that has dominated the homeless issue since it emerged in 1982 in response to federal housing cuts. It’s not rising housing costs triggering increased homelessness as much as reduced federal housing aid; with only 25% of those eligible for housing assistance receiving it, a rising portion of the unserved 25% is becoming homeless.
YIMBYISM is Winning
The good news on the housing front is that the pro-housing YIMBY agenda is winning the ideological battle over the need to build more housing.
We may look back on 2017 as a national turning point when the need for high housing cost cities to build more housing became the dominant view. And it is not too late.
The only risk to a brighter housing future for working people who do not need federal assistance is the Trump tax plan that could send the homebuilding industry into a freefall. I agree with those who say this tax bill is a real test for the political clout of the National Association of Homebuilders and national realtor groups. If they let Trump and Congress kill the mortgage interest deduction on second homes, there days of political power are gone.
It would have been so easy for Congress to shift savings from the mortgage interest deduction to housing assistance for the poor. Yet that would mean Congress cared about the housing crisis. It does not, which is why using mortgage interest savings to boost affordable housing was never on the table.
In the absence of federal support, localities must pass bonds, sales tax hikes and other funding mechanisms to reduce homelessness. Yet we cannot stop pressuring Congress and the White House to do its part—-instead of ending the estate tax for billionaires.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. Beyond Chron will be taking a break and return for a year in review edition on December 19. His most recent book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San FranciscoFiled under: National Politics