Point of View: Vigilance

By Diane Yentel, NLIHC President and CEO

"The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn't bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency."             President Barack Obama, reflecting on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

It goes without saying that these are extraordinary times. Every day, it seems, we experience another unprecedented moment in American political history. It feels at times like we are veering towards a dark precipice.

President-elect Trump's campaign incited islamophobia, racism, homophobia and more, creating real and valid fear in people throughout the country. As a candidate for president, Dr. Ben Carson, nominee for secretary of HUD, sometimes added to the rancor. He denied the existence of institutional racism, suggested that equal rights for LGBTQ people are unnecessary "extra rights", claimed that government programs are "hand-outs" that foster dependency, and stated resolutely that the federal government has no role to play in alleviating poverty.

The campaign is over. On Friday, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the next president of the United States. He has given us no reason to think that he will govern any differently than he campaigned. Republicans, some very conservative, are the majority party in the House and Senate. Now, our challenge is to determine how and when to engage with the incoming Administration and with Congress to continue moving our work of social justice forward.

From what we know about the Republican agenda, we have multiple struggles ahead to protect and preserve the entire safety net for low income people - including affordable housing programs. Republicans are working to repeal the Affordable Care Act as soon as possible with no clear plan for a replacement, putting the health care of millions of low income people at risk. They will seek an increased defense budget, paid for through cuts to non-defense spending programs. They will work to dismantle the gains made in recent years to make housing fair. Comprehensive tax reform threatens the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, both directly and indirectly. We will need to mobilize throughout the year to protect all of these critical programs.

At the same time, we cannot lose sight of opportunities to continue advancing our mission of affordable homes for the lowest income people. Four years of “holding the line” with level funding, of maintaining the status quo simply will not do: not for the nearly eight million extremely low income households struggling to pay the rent each month; for the hundreds of thousands of families, elderly people, kids and veterans living in shelters or on the streets; or for the over 5 million households receiving HUD subsidized assistance and wanting access to better and healthier units, better paying jobs, better schools for their kids and ways to save some of their limited income for something more.

So, when it comes to the budget fights ahead, we will fight to retain parity and maintain at least level funding for all HUD and USDA housing programs. We will simultaneously seek opportunities in Congress to significantly expand funding for programs that serve the lowest income people. Through the United for Homes campaign, we will push for modest reforms to the mortgage interest deduction to provide a new tax break for millions of low income homeowners and to reinvest tens of billions in savings towards housing solutions for the lowest income people. If an infrastructure package is proposed, we will make the case that housing is infrastructure and urge that an expansion of the national Housing Trust Fund and funding for capital improvements to public housing be included.

We will forcefully oppose any attempts by Congress or the Administration to create punitive time limits and work requirements in HUD subsidized programs. Welfare reform failed and pushed more children deeper into poverty. We can't allow that to happen to low income families in HUD programs. 

At the same time, we will welcome opportunities to work with the incoming HUD secretary and his leadership team to achieve much-needed improvements to HUD programs. In his confirmation hearing, Dr. Carson reversed his previous position, stating strongly his belief that the federal government has an important role to play in supporting poor households. He called rental assistance “essential,” while also touting the importance of other HUD programs.

Several improvements to HUD programs long sought by practitioners, advocates and residents of public housing fit within Dr. Carson's frame of "self-sufficiency." This could be the moment when public housing residents can realize one of their top policy priorities: a final Section 3 rule improving upon opportunities for residents of HUD subsidized programs to gain economic opportunities while working to improve their own communities. We can work together to further improve and expand the Family Self Sufficiency program, giving more families an opportunity to build their savings.

We can work with Dr. Carson and Republican leadership in Congress to consolidate public housing authority administration, saving the federal government money and simplifying applications and mobility opportunities for section 8 voucher holders. We can work to better target Community Development Block Grants to ensure funding reaches the lowest income communities to revitalize high poverty neighborhoods. Dr. Carson recognizes and wants to address the hazards of lead poisoning - let's take the opportunity to work together to expand lead abatement and other healthy housing programs. There may even be opportunities to increase funding for voucher mobility programs

We can work to achieve all this, while also holding Dr. Carson to the commitments he made in his confirmation hearing to uphold all existing laws, including and especially as they relate to the rights of LGBTQ people and to fair housing.

We will stand strong against any attempts, whether from the Administration or Congress, to roll back the progress we've made on advancing and beginning to realize truly fair housing. That work starts now - just last week Senators Lee (R-UT) and Vitter (R-LA) and Representative Gosar (R-AZ) introduced legislation to strip HUD of its ability to implement and monitor its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule. And we know from Dr. Carson's own writings that he has opposed AFFH in the past.

But I believe that Dr. Carson's understanding of the importance of AFFH has evolved and may continue to. I know that he is spending time with and learning from some trusted leaders on the issue. I've spoken to Dr. Carson and expect to have a longer meeting with him soon, to continue sharing with him our views on this and other important topics. This is an important opportunity to help inform his thinking; it would be a mistake to miss it out of fear of all the uncertainty around us.

To move our work forward in this time of fear and uncertainty, I believe we must remain open to, and be ready for, possibility. We must welcome every opportunity to form new and sometimes unexpected partnerships towards shared goals.

My commitment to you is to do just that. Throughout these uncertain times, NLIHC will work tirelessly to protect and improve existing programs, as well as seize opportunities to expand them. We will seek areas of commonality while never compromising our core values and always keeping our eyes on the prize - ending homelessness and housing poverty, once and for all.

Vigilance. This moment demands it. Vigilance both to fight back and resist when necessary and to consistently seek and seize opportunities to move forward. Millions of the lowest income people are counting on us to figure out the way to do both. I am certain that, together, we can. 

Thank you for all your good work and partnership,