By Sheila Crowley
The housing and civil rights communities mourn the passing of Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-MA), who died on January 3, 2015 at the age of 95. Most well known as the first African-American to be popularly elected to the U.S. Senate, Senator Brooke was an advocate for low income and fair housing during his two terms (1966-1978). He and colleague Senator Walter Mondale (D-MN) sponsored the legislation that became the Fair Housing Act of 1968. He was also the author of the “Brooke rule” in 1969 that established the principle that residents of federally assisted housing spend no more than 25% of their income on housing (it was raised to 30% in 1981). His work on housing exemplifies his bipartisan approach to legislating.
From the beginning of the National Low Income Housing Coalition in 1974, Senator Brooke was a close ally and good friend. NLIHC founder Cushing Dolbeare credited Senator Brooke as the Senate lead on provisions that NLIHC wanted included in the 1974 Housing and Community Development Act, which created the Section 8 and Community Development Block Grant programs. As Ranking Member of the Senate Banking Committee during his second term, Senator Brooke was the most important champion for affordable housing in the Senate.
Caught in a swirl of personal woes, Senator Brooke was defeated in his bid for reelection in 1978. In his 2007 autobiography Bridging the Divide, Senator recalls that when Cushing asked him to serve as Chair of the NLIHC board after he left office, “ the volunteer position gave me purpose and showed that even though I was no longer in office I could still have a positive impact in the lives of others.”
In 1982, NLIHC gave Senator Brooke its first housing leadership award. In 2010, NLIHC divided the annual award into two: The Edward W. Brooke Housing Leadership Award and the Cushing N. Dolbeare Lifetime Service Award.
Senator Brooke reported in his book that when Ronald Reagan sought his endorsement for President in 1980, they discussed Senator Brooke’s top priority – housing. President Reagan appointed him to the President’s Commission on Housing, which issued its report in 1982. Cushing essentially served as Senator Brooke’s staff for the commission. Senator Brooke lamented that the Reagan Administration failed to implement most of the commission’s recommendations and tried to roll back many of the housing advances on which he had worked in the Senate.
Throughout his post Senate years, Senator Brooke remained a steadfast friend of NLIHC. He and his wife Anne are among NLIHC’s most generous donors. When Cushing died in 2005, he traveled to DC to speak at NLIHC’s commemorative event for her. He agreed in 2013 to be the honorary chair of the United for Homes campaign.
Senator Brooke received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009. I had the honor of attending the ceremony in the US. Capitol. In his gracious acceptance speech, he implored the Members of Congress present to work together and rise above party politics.
Although he had grown increasingly frail in recent years, Senator Brooke always wanted to know what NLIHC was up to. He offered encouragement and praise each time he wrote or we talked by phone. I will miss his wise counsel and good cheer.