Point of View by Sheila Crowley

Sheila CrowleyWhen you read this, I will have spent my last day as a staff member of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. After 17-plus years here and 40 some years at this work, I have retired, at least for the time being. I want each of you to know how thankful I am for your support, your friendship, and your commitment to our mission. You have been very generous to NLIHC and to me personally, and I am grateful.

What follows is an adaptation of the “farewell” speech I gave on April 4 at our annual Housing Policy Forum.  

This is my 18th and final NLIHC annual conference as president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. It doesn’t seem possible that so much time has passed.  It is wonderful to see so many old friends and make new friends. But it is sad to think about all the people we have lost – Edward Brooke, Dorothy Robinson, Peaches Manning, Paulette Turner, Anne Bradshaw, Patty Rouse…and of course, the godmother of our movement, Cushing Dolbeare. I know their spirit is here with us and they are pleased that we continue to come together to advance our great cause.

As I prepare to leave NLIHC, I want to share a few thoughts about what has changed over the years and where we are going.

In 1998, the federal budget had a surplus of $125 billion; today, we have a deficit of $616 billion. Imagine the progress we could have made if that surplus had not been squandered on war and tax cuts.

In 1998, the national two-bedroom housing wage was $11.86 an hour. When NLIHC releases the 2016 edition of Out of Reach in May, it will show that the national two-bedroom housing wage is $20.17 an hour.

The sad fact is that the problem NLIHC exists to solve is much worse today than it was in 1998. At NLIHC, we name this problem “housing poverty.” Housing poverty a condition experienced by a person or a family of not having enough money to pay the monthly cost of a modest, decent home and also pay for food, medicine and other basic needs. It also is a condition experienced by a community that fails to provide sufficient modest, decent housing for all its members, so that some members are forced to live in unsafe, unstable housing or go without housing altogether to pay for food, medicine, and other basic needs.

Why housing poverty is worse is no mystery – there are more poor people. In 1999, there were 7.7 million extremely low income renter households. By 2014, there were 10.4 extremely low income renter households. As the same time, there are fewer homes these families can afford. For every 100 extremely low income renter households in the U.S., there are just 31 homes that are both affordable and available to them.

So whatever victories we claim – building new units, revitalizing public housing, ending homelessness among veterans, improving systems – if we are honest, we have to acknowledge that we are not making a dent. Unless and until we do something big and bold to reverse these numbers, our efforts to educate all our children, to assure a life of dignity for all our elders and our neighbors with disabilities, and to do all the things that a great country should do will fail.

Here are my ten observations that I hope offer optimism and challenges:

  1. In 1998, housing discourse and policy was all about home ownership. The narrative was that homeownership was the answer to generational poverty. Homeowners were winners; therefore, renters were losers. I am proud that NLIHC did not succumb to the pressure to forego advocacy for rental housing and jump on the homeownership train. If there is any silver lining to the Great Recession, it is the recognition that a healthy housing market makes room for both homeowners and renters, and that both are legitimate forms of housing tenure and worthy of support.
  2. Today, we have much greater acceptance of the fact that homelessness is a housing condition first. The narrative in the early 2000s pathologized homelessness. Today, we are less likely to dichotomize housing and homelessness, and we see homelessness as one gradation of the core problem - housing poverty.
  3. When I first started at NLIHC, those who called for deep income targeting in housing programs were the fringe of the housing community. Flexibility for housing providers was the mantra of the day. We had to fight like hell to keep deep income targeting in the National Housing Trust Fund bill, fending off attempts to weaken it, even by some of our friends. We were told that if you want to help the poorest, you have help everyone else and somehow it will trickle down. Today, few deny the data that the biggest housing problem is among the lowest income people. I do not make causal assertions casually, but I know that NLIHC is responsible for moving the focus to the shortage of rental housing that extremely low income households can afford.
  4. We got a new low income housing program enacted that at long last will be implemented this year. The National Housing Trust Fund is the first new low income housing program since 1990.  Of course, I am extremely disappointed that the amount of money in the first year is small compared to the need and to what we envisioned when we started the campaign in 2000. The challenge for all of you is to make sure the first two years of the program are a smashing success and to hold the line on at least $4 billion a year for the National Housing Trust Fund as was in the Johnson-Crapo housing finance reform bill in 2014, when housing finance reform inevitably happens.
  5. The mortgage interest deduction is no longer sacrosanct. Lots of people now say out loud that it has to change. Questioning the mortgage interest deduction was a lonely space that Cushing occupied for a long time; she would be very pleased with how far we have come. Think about this: Even if all we do is move the cap from million dollar mortgages to a mere half million dollars, thus raising taxes on at most 5% of homeowners, we would have $95 billion over 10 years to invest in reducing housing poverty. And we can do much better with other modest changes. Mortgage interest deduction reform is inevitable. Reinvestment of the savings in low income housing is not. Your challenge will be to keep at least some of this money in housing.
  6. Speaking of big money, the United States spends $80 billion a year to house 2.2 million people in our prisons and jails. As we have incarcerated more poor black and brown men over the last 20 years, prisons have become a de facto part of our low income housing system. We are now at a moment when this injustice may be addressed with bipartisan agreement that we have gone too far. We have to make sure that housing is part of criminal justice reform.And the housing response has to be more than making it easier for people coming out of prison to access existing affordable housing, because we know there already is not enough housing for everyone in need. The response has to be about redirecting some of the money we spend on prisons to housing and jobs so that people will succeed when they come home. Let’s not repeat what happened when we deinstitutionalized public psychiatric hospitals in the 1970s and 80s without a community-based housing plan.
  7. Speaking directly to NLIHC members who are residents of public housing, I hope you know how important you are to me and to the power of NLIHC. I know that too often your homes and communities are disparaged by outsiders and that you are angry about disinvestment in the nation’s aging public housing stock. You know that without public housing, you and millions of others would be much worse off competing in the private rental housing market. No wonder you fight like hell to protect your homes. But public housing will survive to serve another generation only if the federal government commits to housing policies that assures decent and affordable homes for all low income people. So please put the considerable skills you have honed as advocates to protect your own homes to also demanding an end to housing poverty for all.
  8. Last year was momentous in housing history with the U.S. Supreme Court decision on disparate impact and the new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. The advance in fair housing is one of the great accomplishments of the Obama Administration. We finally have new tools to combat housing discrimination against people who are members of the protected classes. And because objecting to low income housing often is thinly veiled bias against people of color, the affirmatively furthering fair housing rule will help expand affordable rental housing and therefore housing choice for low income people. Please embrace this rule and make it work in your communities.
  9. Income inequality is no longer the subject of dry discourse in DC think tanks and academia. From Occupy Wall Street to the Sanders campaign, income inequality is now the central moral issue of our time. There’s enough wealth in our country for everyone to enjoy a basic standard of living. Better pay and better benefits are essential to ending housing poverty.
  10. Finally, although the low income housing shortage has never been worse, I know I am leaving NLIHC at a time when your coalition has never been stronger. You have a terrific board, generous and loyal funders, a growing membership, and a solid reputation for integrity and commitment. You have a fabulous staff of talented, passionate, hardworking advocates. And I leave NLIHC with great confidence in its future under the leadership of Diane Yentel, who I know you will embrace with affection and respect. Diane is the future of our movement, deeply grounded in where we have come from and full of new ideas and new energy to move our agenda forward. Diane is the right person at the right time to take NLIHC to new heights and great victories.

One last thought…in the words of Nelson Mandela, “it always seems impossible until it’s done.”