The NLIHC 2015 Housing Legislative Forum was held in Washington, DC on March 1-3. Despite weather related travel delays for several attendees, a diverse collection of NLIHC members and friends gathered to hear and converse with top-rate speakers, educate themselves about NLIHC’s policy priorities, and go to Capitol Hill to tell lawmakers about their concerns. Unlike previous NLIHC conferences structured with a few plenary speakers and numerous workshops, this year’s event featured a series of plenary panels attended by all participants.
Researchers Discuss Links between Affordable Housing and Family Well-being
The first panel focused on new research. NLIHC Research Director Megan Bolton moderated a discussion with three leading researchers who presented their findings on the intersections between housing affordability and the well-being of low income households.
Ingrid Gould Ellen, Faculty Director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy and Paulette Goddard Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at New York University, presented the findings of a newly released study of the rental market in eleven cities. Between 2006 and 2011, rental vacancy rates declined in nine of the eleven cities, making it even harder for low income households to find affordable housing. The average low income renter could afford no more than 11% of the available units in those cities. Rising housing costs mean that households have less discretionary income to spend on other necessities, such as food, utilities, and health costs.
Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba, Research and Policy Director at Children’s HealthWatch, focused on the importance of housing stability and affordability on the well-being of children under the age of four. Her research is based on data collected through interviews with caregivers at primary care health clinics. She identified housing-related factors that negatively impact the well-being of children, including multiple moves within one year, overcrowding, and housing insecurity. Ms. Ettinger de Cuba’s research finds a clear link between pre- and postnatal homelessness and poor health outcomes among children, including developmental delays and low birth-weight. She said subsidized housing is like a “vaccine” that can improve health outcomes for children over the long term.
Matthew Desmond, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Sciences at Harvard University, described the Milwaukee Area Renters Study, a 2008 study of evictions in Milwaukee, WI that combined ethnographic research and data from eviction records to assess the impact of eviction on families. Mr. Desmond integrated the eviction experiences of a Milwaukee family into a discussion of his research. Families with children are three times more likely to face eviction than households without children. In addition, evicted mothers often show signs of depression, distress, and other health problems for periods after eviction occurs. According to Mr. Desmond, the lack of affordable housing contributes significantly to families being forced to live in apartments that are too expensive and, therefore, is a major contributing factor to the high rates of eviction of poor families across low income communities.
National Advocates Discuss Housing and Homeless Policy Landscape 2015-2016
The second panel of four national leaders in housing and homeless policy moderated by NLIHC President and CEO Sheila Crowley discussed their outlook for the remaining two years of the Obama Administration and the 114th Congress. While the panelists tempered expectations for significant progress, all emphasized the importance of continued advocacy at the local, state, and national levels.
Barbara Sard, Vice President for Housing Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, began the conversation on the federal budget. She highlighted the President’s FY16 budget request, which includes a $4 billion increase in funding for housing above HUD’s enacted FY15 level, and a restoration of 67,000 vouchers lost to sequestration. She emphasized the importance of advocating for parity between nondefense and defense discretionary spending as a potential means of surpassing the budget caps imposed by the Budget Control Act. Ms. Sard also addressed the threat to extremely low income households posed by the expansion of the Moving to Work demonstration and proposals for block grants such as Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) Opportunity Grants.
After commenting on the lack of accountability for outcomes in block grants, Nan Roman, President and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, continued the conversation by discussing the prospects for advocacy around housing as healthcare. Ms. Roman identified three specific challenges. First is a lack of adequate empirical evidence. Currently, most of the evidence in support of housing as healthcare is derived from program evaluations that employ convenience samples. Ms. Roman stated that it is necessary to build evidence across populations by using “more administrative data and randomized studies.” The second challenge Ms. Roman identified is the difficulty in crossing between the “silos” of housing and healthcare, especially in regard to the funding mechanisms for using healthcare dollars for housing. The third challenge to progress on considering housing as healthcare is indifference on the part of policymakers.
Ali Solis, Senior Vice President for Public Policy & External Affairs at Enterprise Community Partners, addressed the issue of tax reform. Ms. Solis stated that “comprehensive tax reform is our greatest threat and opportunity.” Specifically, Ms. Solis identified reform of the mortgage interest deduction (MID) as a major opportunity to better align federal housing policy with existing housing needs. Joe Ventrone, Vice President of Regulatory & Industry Relations at the National Association of Realtors, also addressed the issue of the MID. While Mr. Ventrone does not believe tax reform will occur during the current administration, he highlighted the need for a broad coalition of advocates to unite and educate around the MID over the next two years. He stated that current proposals for reforming the MID are “not too far out of whack.”
The remainder of Mr. Ventrone’s remarks concerned prospects for housing finance reform. After summarizing recent efforts to pass bipartisan legislation, Mr. Ventrone concluded that housing finance reform might happen in the next Administration in a manner similar to the way President George H.W. Bush moved Congress to address the Savings and Loans Crisis through passage of the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989.
After audience questions, Dr. Crowley concluded the plenary session with her thoughts on the prospects for reforming the MID. Dr. Crowley stated that MID reform will likely depend on organizing a coalition of three constituencies: those interested in reducing the deficit, those interested in reducing tax rates, and those interested in generating revenue for new spending.
Forum Participants Interact with HUD Secretary Julián Castro and Senior HUD Officials
HUD Secretary Julián Castro delivered the keynote address at the Forum, continuing the long line of HUD Secretaries to speak at NLIHC conferences. After congratulating NLIHC on the NHTF victory, he focused his remarks on the work of HUD to create equal opportunity for all Americans.
Secretary Castro assured attendees that the President shares their dedication to ensuring a safe and affordable home for everyone. He highlighted the President’s FY16 budget request as a reflection of his values and housing priorities. Secretary Castro noted that HUD’s budget request sought $2.5 billion for homeless assistance grants, a $345 million increase over the previous year. He also explained that Section 811 supportive housing for persons with disabilities is increased by 31% in the President’s budget. He cited the request for an additional $1.8 billion in Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, noting that the additional resources will restore 67,000 vouchers lost to sequestration. Emphasizing the Administration’s resolve in the upcoming budget battle, Secretary Castro said, “I promise you that we are going to fight for these dollars so that folks can make that important move from struggle to security.”
Secretary Castro went on to discuss the extraordinary challenges facing public housing, noting that 10,000 units of public housing are lost each year, and that there is currently a $26 billion backlog in capital needs. He pointed to the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) as an effort to “think outside the box” in order to leverage outside investment to preserve public housing. Secretary Castro acknowledged the concerns that many advocates have about RAD, saying that “we get it, we hear you, and we will keep our doors open for your feedback and counsel.”
The address closed with a discussion of Secretary Castro’s goal to expand broadband internet access in public housing in order to create equal access to information and create further educational opportunity. “The time has come for our nation to finally close the digital divide so that every child has the chance to succeed in the 21st century global economy,” Castro said.
Four high-ranking HUD officials also took part in a panel moderated by NLIHC Special Advisor Ed Gramlich. Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, Gustavo Velasquez, noted that 47 years had passed since Congress mandated that communities affirmatively further fair housing (AFFH) goals. When the AFFH rule finally becomes a reality, housing advocates will need to actively engage in housing planning. Mr. Velasquez said that investing in disinvested communities and allowing movement from high-need neighborhoods to high-opportunity neighborhoods are both important, and that there must be a balanced approach to achieving fair housing’s goals.
Mr. Velasquez also said that HUD will release the proposed Section 3 regulation in the coming month. In addition, this year HUD will expand a five-city pilot program enabling businesses to enroll as “Section 3 certified” businesses. Section 3 requires recipients of certain HUD financial assistance, to the greatest extent possible, to provide job training, employment, and contract opportunities for low or very low income residents in connection with projects in their neighborhoods.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multifamily Housing Programs Benjamin Metcalf remarked that the 7.7 million renter households in the U.S. paying more than half of their incomes for rent are a “great motivator for us to figure out how we can make our programs more efficient and go further.” He said that HUD, through the Federal Housing Administration, must ensure that the federal mortgage guarantee can add affordable housing stock that the private market is not adding. Later this year HUD will announce a small-building risk-sharing pilot to help smaller properties that have struggled to get financing for their repair needs.
Mr. Metcalf said that the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), which allows public housing and some project-based contracts to convert their subsidy streams to Section 8 project-based contracts or project-based vouchers, has leveraged $6 billion in investments. A priority for RAD is making sure that tenant protections such as one-for-one replacement, no rescreening of tenants, and tenant participation are fully enforced. One Forum attendee urged Mr. Metcalf to ensure that any properties HUD subsidizes or insures have common space amenities, such as gyms, play areas, or roof top gardens that are available to all tenants, not just market-rate tenants.
Marion Mollegen McFadden, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Grant Programs in HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development, said she is very excited about HUD’s interim rule for the National Housing Trust Fund. HUD predicts the first NHTF dollars will get to states in late summer 2016. Ms. McFadden also made clear that HUD in no way sees the NHTF program as supplanting the HOME program. Indeed, before HUD predicted the amount of funds that the NHTF might provide in 2016, HUD had decided on its request to seek increased funds for the HOME program for FY16.
Ms. McFadden also talked about the importance of the National Disaster Resilience program. These special CDBG disaster funds will support innovative resilience projects at the local level, encourage communities to adopt policy changes and activities that plan for the impacts of extreme weather and climate change, and rebuild affected areas to be better prepared for the future.
Acting Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing, Jemine Bryon, reviewed HUD’s FY16 budget request for public housing and vouchers. She was enthusiastic about HUD’s request to restore vouchers lost by the 2013 sequester. Ms. Bryon also noted that the request seeks to expand the number of Public Housing Agencies (PHAs) that may participate in the Moving to Work (MTW) demonstration by 15 PHAs. MTW gives PHAs broad flexibility to waive current public housing and voucher laws and regulations.
One Forum participant, a resident of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), an MTW demonstration site, said he was concerned about expanding the MTW program because of HUD’s insufficient oversight for the program. Ms. Bryon said that a rigorous evaluation will be a key component of any deal to extend the current 39 contracts. She also said that HUD has an implementation plan to address CHA’s “reserve issue.” CHA, according to a June 2014 report by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, has $432 million in its reserves “built up by not spending federal revenue received primarily for its housing voucher programs.”
A voucher holder from Connecticut also told Ms. Bryon that she was concerned about expanding MTW because HUD has admitted it does not have adequate data or staff to evaluate the program. Another public housing resident urged HUD to convene a forum with public and assisted housing residents, particularly those undergoing RAD conversions or who are in the MTW program, because “you need to hear from consumers.”
Bipartisan Congressional Staff Discuss Budget, Appropriations, Tax Reform, Housing Finance Reform, and More
Two panels at the Forum featured Congressional staff from both sides of the aisle. A panel, moderated by NLIHC Senior Vice President for Policy Linda Couch, focused on the FY16 budget resolution and HUD appropriations. Warren Gunnels, the minority staff director for the Budget Committee, discussed Budget Committee Ranking Member Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) budget priorities: replacing the sequester with revenue raised by asking the most wealthy and profitable corporations to pay their fair share of taxes; rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, including affordable housing; and raising the minimum wage to allow people to have the resources they need.
Mr. Gunnels praised grassroots efforts for helping pass legislation creating the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF), for which then-Representative Sanders was a key early champion. He encouraged attendees to continue their advocacy efforts to end sequestration and protect non-defense discretionary (NDD) spending programs from receiving devastating cuts, including HUD and Rural Housing Service programs. He warned that while he had not seen the Republicans’ budget proposal, he heard that it will significantly reduce federal spending for NDD programs, as well as federal entitlements such as Medicaid and SNAP. He said that some lawmakers are now pushing to lift the sequester cap only on defense spending, meaning that NDD programs would see additional cuts.
The Senate budget resolution will likely be marked up in committee the week of March 16 and will go to the Senate floor the following week. NLIHC invited a representative from the majority staff of the Senate Budget Committee, chaired by Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), but no one was available to participate in the panel.
Next, Jason Woolwine and Meaghan McCarthy, who work as majority and minority staff respectively on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies, spoke about the prospects for funding HUD’s FY16 budget proposal. Both agreed that the current economic climate makes it challenging for HUD programs to receive the funding they need just to maintain current levels of assistance, and that funding to restore or expand housing programs was unlikely to be included in any spending bill. Mr. Woolwine explained that HUD requires about $3.4 billion more in resources for FY16 compared to last year, but sequestration only permits government-wide spending to increase by $1 billion, so many of HUD’s budget proposals are not likely to advance. Mr. Woolwine expressed confidence that HUD requested sufficient funds to ensure that all project-based rental assistance contracts could be renewed.
Regarding the $26 billion backlog in public housing repair needs, both Ms. McCarthy and Mr. Woolwine said that programs such as the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) are important tools but are not a silver bullet for solving the problem of preserving public housing over the long term. Both stated they are open to hearing from advocates about any new ideas they might have.
Ms. McCarthy also discussed how advocates should talk about the HOME program as being complementary to the NHTF. She said that by educating lawmakers about the complexity of putting a deal together and presenting them with projects within their district, they will have a much better appreciation for why these programs are important. Mr. Woolwine also encouraged advocates to meet with all offices, especially when they are still in the process of drafting the appropriations bills. He said that too frequently people make assumptions about where lawmakers stand on certain issues and miss a great opportunity to advocate for the programs they care about.
A second panel of Hill staff, moderated by Sheila Crowley, focused on authorizing issues and tax reform. Representing the authorizing committees were Brian Chernoff, Legislative Counsel for Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Ranking Member on the Housing, Transportation, and Community Development Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs and Clinton Jones, Senior Counsel for the House Committee on Financial Services (Majority).
The discussion opened on public housing, including the expansion of the Moving to Work (MTW) demonstration program, the Rental Demonstration Program (RAD), and the backlog of more than $26 million in public housing capital funds. Mr. Chernoff began by noting that the Democrats have less control over the legislative agenda now that they are in the minority, but he emphasized that they recognize the challenges and concerns over the future of public housing. He said that there is a willingness to work these issues and find common ground. Mr. Jones spoke about the consensus that Republicans and Democrats have come to on some of these issues in the past, and Chair Hensarling’s commitment to showing that House Financial Services Committee members can work together to get things done. He also emphasized that he does not believe there is one answer to solving the problems of public housing and that residents need a menu of options. The majority, he said, wants to explore all of the ideas, especially in light of current fiscal constraints. Speaking more specifically about the expansion of MTW, both Mr. Jones and Mr. Chernoff agreed that there is a need for rigorous reporting and evaluation of the program, but noted that this should be done in a way that is not costly or burdensome.
On the subject of housing finance reform, Mr. Chernoff talked about the primary challenge of coming up with a new system that works and does not create financial instability. He said that the process of working on this issue last year was encouraging, even though no deal was ultimately reached, and that he hopes the parties can continue to find common ground. However, he has not received indication from the new leadership about what direction they want to go in on this issue. Mr. Jones commented that the onus was now on the Administration to signal its position on what direction housing reform should take.
Staff from the Senate Committee on Finance were Nicholas Wyatt, Tax and Nominations Professional Staff Member (Majority) and Adam Carasso, Senior Tax and Economic Advisor (Minority). Ms. Crowley asked about the prospects for comprehensive tax reform noting it has been 30 years since the last overhaul of the tax system. Mr. Wyatt stated that Chair Hatch is very serious about tax reform that is bipartisan. Chair Hatch and Ranking Member Wyden have created five working groups, one of which is focused on infrastructure and community development. This working group is tasked with examining the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), a tax credit Mr. Wyatt recognizes is popular and effective. The working groups are currently in the education phase and will present roundtable reports to the full committee by Memorial Day. Mr. Carasso discussed some of the various ways in which the mortgage interest deduction could be reformed as a result of this process, but also talked about the difficulty of messaging any reform of such a popular tax benefit.
All of the panelists emphasized the need for the two parties to work together to find things they agree on and can move forward through the committees. Moving comprehensive tax reform or housing finance reform forward this year will be a challenge, but members on both side of the aisle are committed to educating themselves on the issues and working toward those goals.
A Dinner Conversation with Darren Walker
Capping off NLIHC’s 2015 Housing Legislative Forum was a dinner that concluded with a conversation between Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, and James Traub, contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. The event was a “Q-and-A” style conversation between the two that focused on the causes, consequences, and solutions to economic inequality in the U.S.
Mr. Walker is a force in the philanthropic world. He became the 10th President of the Ford Foundation in 2013, after serving as the foundation’s Vice President for Education, Creativity and Free Expression and as Vice President for Foundation Initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation. Before entering philanthropy, Mr. Walker was the Chief Operating Officer for the Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem and a member of the NLIHC Board.
Mr.Traub has also written for The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. He is also the author of several books including The Devil’s Playground, a history about New York’s Times Square; City On A Hill, a profile of the City College of New York, and The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power, a profile of the former United Nations Ambassador Kofi Annan. His forthcoming book is a biography of John Quincy Adams.
Mr. Traub started the conversation by posing the question, “Why is income inequality in the U.S. something everyone should care about?” Mr. Walker responded, “Income inequality is a threat to our democracy,” adding “This is not the America that our forefathers wanted.” He went on to say, “We have finally come to a recognition that inequality is growing, and that is a fact. The challenge is what do we do about it? If you really care about poverty and having a middle class in this country, we have to look at the drivers of inequality and the solutions, all of which are very tough for this country to grapple with.” According to Mr. Walker, one of the drivers is that “we remain a society where particular people remain marginalized generation after generation, primarily people of African decent, immigrants, and poor whites.”
Mr. Traub asked about President Lyndon Johnson, his 1965 War on Poverty and his fight for racial inclusion. Mr. Walker responded, “President Johnson was not talking about income inequality, but rather poverty, although there is a relationship between the two,” adding “Inequality is a new phenomenon, and poverty is a subset of the challenge of inequality. As the 1% grabs an increasing part of the benefits of the society, there is less and less to share with the other 99%.”
Talking about solutions, Mr. Walker said “One of the things that is hard to grapple with is that in some ways, the system is rigged, and that is really hard, especially for successful people, to accept.” He noted that there are many wealthy people who are very concerned about income inequality in the country, adding that they support organizations such as NLIHC, other nonprofits, and unions. He acknowledged that the balance of power has shifted from labor to capital, and that even though the economy has grown, the benefits have gone to a very small segment of the population.
Mr. Traub commented that “radical economic inequality creates radical political inequality,” as seen in the mid-term elections last November, which means that it is much more difficult to get into the political debate about solutions. Mr. Walker commented, “As fewer people have more political power, their ability to control political discourse increases and their ability to muffle real debate increases,” adding that the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and the ability of a few to basically “buy elections” is very disconcerting. Mr. Walker commented that there was a time when university presidents gave speeches on social justice, but now they do not because they cannot afford to offend their board members. Mr. Walker remarked, “There are fewer and fewer outlets in our democracy that we can rely on for truth and courage, that are for the people.”
The interaction between Mr. Traub and Mr. Walker and their exchange with audience members resulted in evening that was enlightening, inspiring, and often humorous.