Why We Still Need Federal Housing Policy

5.10.12 | While Mitt Romney is busy calling for the end of the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, urban studies scholars say not so fast.

In two thoughtful posts at the Urban Institute’s MetroTrends blog, BRR Network member Rolf Pendall says that while it’s true state and local governments need more autonomy and flexibility in their development policies, there is still very much a need for federal housing oversight.

As a researcher who studies land use and affordable housing, Pendall should know. His work has been important is helping us understand how policies like zoning laws, and transportation planning affect community equity in areas such as affordable housing, ethnic and racial diversity, and the environment. [See our post on “How Equity in Transit Development Can Strengthen Regions,” for example.]

While speaking to supporters at a closed-door Florida fundraiser last month, Romney said, “I’m going to take a lot of departments in Washington, and agencies, and combine them,” according to NBC News.

“Things like Housing and Urban Development, which my dad was head of, that might not be around later,” Romney continued. “But I’m not going to actually go through these one by one. What I can tell you is, we’ve got far too many bureaucrats. I will send a lot of what happens in Washington back to the states.”

“While I disagree with that position,” Pendall writes, “I agree that state and local governments ought to have more autonomy over their urban development programs and policies than they currently do.”

Pendall says that programs like the Community Development Block Grant, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit are successful because they give substantial leeway to state and local authorities to decide how best to use federal monies and the opportunity to debate the future of cities and neighborhoods along the way.

“This discretion allows slow-growing places to buy, renovate, and rehabilitate established housing,” Pendall writes, “and allows fast-growth locations to build new housing.”

In the future, he says successful metros will depend on this flexibility — the ability to deploy resources across domains and thereby get the most out of government investment . Local authorities can decide to support the development of infrastructure, for example, or fund programs in transportation, health, education or criminal justice  — all areas that overlap and often directly affect housing policy. He writes:

Most of our housing and homelessness policies and programs are still locked into particular purposes, with separate funding streams, offices, and even agencies (HUD, USDA, Treasury, the VA, and so on), not only reducing the reach of these programs but also often conflicting with state and local priorities. Local governments clearly want more flexibility even among their HUD programs, as shown by the wild popularity among housing agencies of the Moving to Work demonstration.

HUD’s Moving to Work project gives local public housing authorities the flexibility to design and test new strategies in employment and housing programs, granting flexibility and even exemptions from some current requirements in voucher programs, for example.  Similarly, we’ve written about HUD’s new Smart Cities, Smart Communities program that aims to help some struggling metro regions cut through federal red tape and better leverage federal dollars.

In a subsequent post Pendall argues that despite this need for flexibility, we still need federal housing and development oversight to guide and shape national policy. He says HUD needs to be involved in defining affordability, for example, to broker evolving standards for safety, quality, and energy efficiency in housing, and crucially, to ensure racial residential integration. He reminds that we need federal housing policy to enforce the goals of housing legislation which requires that “every American family should be able to afford a decent home in a suitable environment.” Let’s hope Mitt Romney is listening.

Read the full post sat MetroTrends. You can read more of Pendall’s work at the BRR Network.

Photo by Joe Wolf.

Comments are closed.