Saturday, July 26, 2008

Xavier de Souza Briggs on Failed Urban Policy and Proposals to 'Tear Down HUD'

This post is about federal housing policy and its reform, and features comments by Professor Briggs (and further commentary by Peter Dreier and Dowell Myers below), but first a bit about its genesis. Some years ago, Univ. Buffalo's Bill Page took the bold initiative to create a listserv for urban planning academics called PLANET. Most often used for informational postings these days, such as job ads or publication announcements, it does occasionally feature an exchange or post that, by all rights, deserves a wider audience -- by being republished, say, in an illustrated urban planning research blog.

Hey, I have one of those. And a PLANET post this week by MIT's Xavier de Souza Briggs more than fits the bill.

Briggs and Occidental's Peter Dreier recently discussed several related aspects of federal housing policy in their, "Memphis Murder Mystery? No, Just Mistaken Identity," in Shelterforce, which in turn was prepared in response to Hanna Rosin's article, "American Murder Mystery," in The Atlantic. (The Rosin article attributes a spike in Memphis crime, and by extension elsewhere, to federal housing subsidy programs aimed at deconcentrating poverty. The Briggs/Dreier reply, endorsed there by more than 2 dozen prominent housing researchers, takes issue mostly with Rosin's causation story, which is indeed brazenly weak, then goes on to talk extensively about various empirics of federal housing and antipovery programs. It is a quite useful read, with attitude.) Got all that?

With this series of events in mind, I asked Briggs, a former HUD assistant secretary, and Dreier for a quick reaction to Friday's New York Times op-ed by Columbia's Sudhir Venkatesh (pictured here, also a blogger for Freakonomics), "To Fight Poverty, Tear Down HUD?" The op-ed suggests that HUD's mission has drifted in such a way as to leave it ineffective in dealing either with national housing policy or poverty alleviation, and specifically suggests redistributing its responsibilities to other agencies, as well as creating a new, better directed, articulated, and empowered agency for the core mission of fighting poverty. (Note to self: Make next op-ed on national urban policy less abstract, more specific.)

That is, I wrote:

Xav and Peter, et al.
Given that you have thought related issues through so thoroughly lately, it would be great to see a pithy response here to today's Venkatesh's NYT oped on restructuring HUD and federal housing assistance. The reader comments there alone are unusually well informed and thoughtful, but why not also a quick note by professionals on the planning academic listserv? ....

That very day, Briggs provided this quite thoughtful reply which, with his kind permission, I reprint here:
randy --

thanks for pushing us, and i agree that we need to elevate these issues generally.

the foreclosure crisis, job ills, and climate change could be leading to a broader conversation along the lines sudhir mentions, but they aren't. it will take work to make that happen, given how the presidential campaigns--and the body politic--are focused for now.

a few reactions to his op-ed, taking the solution first and the problems second:

1. does he have the right solution--"tear down HUD"--to the problem(s) he's diagnosed?

-- re: HUD works each-city-on-its-own

it's little known, but HUD's founding charter directs the agency to guide the federal government's support for sensible METROPOLITAN development. but that was a non-starter from way back, in part because it's an unwieldy mandate and in part because localities resist regionalism, as some of the comments on the NYT site note.

too few planners or members of the public even know that HUD funded regional planning for years, until the reagan admin slashed funding. we tried to revive some of this in the clinton admin, but it was hard to get the congress to approve new programs or new funding of any kind.

that history aside, there's little evidence that super-agencies can work to orchestrate the many functions one would want brought together on behalf of city-regions (inter-connected cities and suburbs). even white house led multi-agency efforts are extremely challenging to pull off, which is not to say we can afford to leave everything stovepiped and fragmented.

integrating a few key EPA, DOT, and HUD funding streams--around the idea of prosperty, equity, and sustainability, say--could go a long way, for instance. again, i don't know that this points to abolishing HUD, and i don't think the structure of HUD is 1 of the top 5 barriers to regional action. but the work needs doing somehow.

brookings' latest "blueprint for american prosperity" tries to articulate what a holistic federal compact with regions could look like, short of massive integration of functions.

-- re: HUD's programs would be better run by other agencies

this is a recurring proposal. gingrich pushed it, conservative think tanks have broached it from time to time, and HUD secretary cisneros did circulate some bold proposals for reform that included "off loading" programs.

there is a good deal of truth to the idea--which is not in sudhir's op-ed--that the agency combines too many objectives. they compete with each other, some inevitably get shortchanged, and it's hard to maintain the talent needed (at all levels) to pursue all the objectives well.

i support the idea of taking fair housing enforcement away from HUD, which has always struggled with it, and giving this function to an equal housing opportunity commission, analogous to the equal employment opportunity commission. john goering's last book, an edited volume, explored this.

mayors would riot at the idea of regionalizing their block grants, but some politically viable way of supporting regional action--and not just the allocation of road-building pork-barrel spending by metro "planning" orgs--is key. again, we got almost nowhere on this in the clinton admin, despite some effort.

i can't imagine how commerce or treasury, which sudhir highlights but which have little experience with social assistance programs, could run anything quite like HUD's low-income housing assistance programs. but some programs could be changed, e.g. stegman, dreier and others have called for adding a housing allowance to the earned income tax credit, which would continue to be run by treasury (the IRS). the problem is that the EITC doesn't reach the nonworking poor, who rely on HUD's vouchers and public housing to a significant degree.

other kinds of programs, such as those with individual and not government or nonprofit clients, e.g., housing finance (FHA mortgage insurance) could, in principle, be off loaded or made independent again (FHA predates HUD, after all).

in the end, sudhir seems ambivalent, as well as concerned about quite a range of problems: the op-ed shifts focus. he wants (a) a more effective agent for the "UD" in "HUD" plus (b) some changes to housing programs.

i sincerely welcome the debate, but i don't yet see that abolishing HUD is the way to achieve either of those two things.

2. are the problems real and significant? and is HUD to blame?

a number of the problems are serious, including the shortcomings of hope 6 in key cities.

as we wrote in response to the rosin article, hope 6 plays out very differently from place to place. it isn't fair to dismiss it as a mere give-away to developers or a program for displacement across the board. there are wonderful hope 6 developments, there are responsible and hardworking affordable housing developers delivering real innovation, and resident relocation improved in a number of cities after the flaws started to get documented a decade ago.

also, we could be talking about income mixing that doesn't put the middle class together with the very poor in the same housing developments. there are less ambitious mixes that would still reduce the extreme economic and racial segregation in many of our cities.

and like rosin, sudhir writes about the displacement of the poor outward from inner-city housing projects as *creating* distress, but we know it's hard to make that attribution. poverty was suburbanizing, for example, long before public housing demolitions took scale. the notion that large-scale, aggressive demolition in key cities tipped some areas should be studied carefully, though. we need better evidence, given the tendency to blame the poor and poverty programs for neighborhood decline.

what's undeniable is the number of distressed neighborhoods--more now, thanks to our run-away subprime lending, the collapse of the property bubble, and jobless recovery--that see poverty and social problems growing in their midst and don't see any concerted effort to respond.

i don't see HUD or hope 6 as major culprits in the changing geography of distress, but i won't deny that HUD and other federal programs have contributed (on one hand) and also shrunk away from the kinds of bolds steps that would respond to that change.

-- xav

Related links, suggested by Prof. Briggs:

Howard Husock on HUD and federal housing reform:
"Real Public Housing Reform: How the Bush Administration's Plans are Quietly Revolutionary," City Journal, 2003.

America's Trillion Dollar Mistake: The Failure of American Housing Policy, Ivan R. Dee, 2005.

(Husock's 2003 congressional testimony, defending major proposed reform of housing assistance by the Bush administration, is also online, along with other materials, here.)

For some good history of HUD and broad policy directions:
Cityscape special issue, "Commemorating HUD's 30th Anniversary," 1995.

Cityscape special issue, "Housing Policy in the New Millennium," 2001.

p.s. I shouldn't be surprised, but was, to find via wikipedia that Venkatesh is a graduate of our neighborhood Irvine high school, University. Its students and teachers are all aware of the celebrity grads, such as Will Ferrell (interviewed in the local paper this week about how growing up bored in Irvine forced him to be funny) and the friendliest angry political rock star you'd ever meet, Zack de la Rocha, but somehow the academic luminaries don't make it to the celebrated alum list.

pp.s. Irrelevant unbelievable true story about place-based cultural assets: My youngest, then a new Uni freshman, runs into a new pal in town last Fall. Said pal is quite excited as he'd somehow scored a ticket to see the just reunited Rage Against the Machine, including access to the "green room" with the performers. That's great, my son says, and tell Zack hi for me if you see him. His friend says, "Zack? How would you know Zack?" As son starts to explain to skeptical pal (the details are boring but I was the greatest dad in the universe for a spell there) ... Zack walks by. Son introduces him to the assorted dumbstruck friends, he and Zack chat about orthodontics, jarrana music, and a local cultural center we favor, El Centro Cultural de México, then ZDLR heads on his way. Extremely cool dude .

Question: Did anything like that ever happen to you in high school? Not me. Not by a long shot. I mean, I've since met my share of celebrity planning professors. (Note to self: Get on youtube! ... in flattering, career-enhancing way.) I was introduced to Leonardo DiCaprio's mother once, but didn't realize it so I'm pretty sure that doesn't count, especially since I didn't use her to disabuse my skeptics, which I thought only happened in the movies. So I wonder, will I be losing a HUD-reform argument on an Irvine street corner some day and have Professor Venkatesh -- in town perhaps to visit relatives -- happen by to bail me out? Maybe.

ppp.s. Son's band teacher catches wind of his acquaintance with Mr. DLR. Is huge Rage fan (as are we all). Calls son in to ask if he would ask Zack to revisit Uni high for some sort of band event. Son replies, uh, no, that would be uncool.

pppp.s. Hey Rage, new music porfa! On housing reform in the new millennium! ... uh, wait, I spoke too soon. Zack has a side project band, One Day as a Lion, that just released an EP last week. Zack's familiar rage and definitely some anti-poverty themes. This is kind of a big deal, as we haven't heard much sound from him for years and years.


Peter Dreier said...


When faced with a serious and persistent problem, it is often tempting to propose dramatic ideas, like blowing up existing programs and starting from scratch. Occassionally that might be useful, but more often it is simply overzealousness. It is more useful, though less headline-grabbing, to figure out what are the key causes of the problems and to identify what lessons policymakers can learn from past successes and failures.

In a New York Times op-ed column headlined, "To FIght Poverty, Tear Down HUD," on Friday, July 25, Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh argued that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is not effective in dealing either with national housing policy, the problems facing cities and their struggling suburbs, or reducing poverty. He recommended redistributing its responsibilities to other agencies, as well as creating a new, more focused agency for the core mission of fighting poverty. Xavier de Souza Briggs has effectively challenged Venkatesh's view that other agencies would be better-eqipped to handle HUD's mission. Let me stir a few more ideas into this discussion.

From a policy perspective, the problems Venkatesh discusses are easy to solve. Other affluent nations have much lower levels of poverty and inequality, much less homelessness, fewer slums, more public transit and less use of pollution-generating cars,less economic segregation in terms of where people live, and a more rational link between where people live and where people work. Despite America's vast wealth, no other major industrial nation has allowed the level of sheer destitution that exists in the United States. Americans accept as "normal" levels of poverty, hunger, crime and homelessness that would cause national alarm in Canada, Western Europe or Australia.

In the last two decades, the lines between cities and suburbs have blurred. The mayors and residents of many suburbs, like their city counterparts, are dealing with similar problems -- not only poverty, homelessness, crime, and underfunded schools, but also rising gas prices, traffic congestion and pollution, accelerating foreclosures and abandoned homes, crumbling infrastructure, widening wage inequality, escalating health care and food costs, a wave a new immigrants, and the export of jobs to China and Mexico.

Suburbanites are not immune to the mega-trends and policy disasters that challenge the country. We face a new Gilded Age -- a frenzy of corporate mergers, widening economic disparities, and deteriorating social conditions. America today has the biggest concentration of income and wealth since 1928. Meanwhile, the American Dream -- the ability to buy a home, pay for college tuition and health insurance, take a yearly vacation, and save for retirement-has become increasingly elusive. A growing number of working families are in debt, while the number facing foreclosure has spiraled. American workers face declining job security as companies downsize, move overseas, and shift more jobs to part-time workers. The cost of basic necessities is rising faster than incomes. These problems are certainly not confined to big cities.

If we adopted some of these successful policies found in other affluent, democratic, capitalist countries -- as John Mollenkopft, Todd Swanstrom and I recommended in our book, Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century -- the U.S. would have cleaner, safer, healthier cities and urban regions. But we can't just snap our fingers and make that happen. The problem is political. First we need to mobilize the political will to address these problems, and find the right combination of policies that can win the support of a significant majority of the voting population and members of Congress.

The long-standing problems at HUD that Venkatesh identifies are a symptom of the weak political constituency for low-income housing and the poor, not a matter of inherent bureaucratic ineptitude. Like FEMA, HUD's successes and failures are the result of political choices. Compare FEMA's (and HUD's) success in helping the victims of the Northridge earthquake in the Los Angeles area in the 1990s (during the Clinton administration) with FEMA's (and HUD's) failure to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Gulf Coast (under Bush). FEMA's and HUD's failures were symptoms of the Bush administration's disdain for government in general and the poor in particular. It was a problem of indifference, not incompetence. (Or, put differently, it was Bush's indifference that make it OK to appoint incompetents to run FEMA).

Some of HUD's programs -- the Section 8 voucher program, FHA insurance (despite its redlining of cities until the 1970s), CDBG and HOME, and even some well-designed senior housing and family public housing, and funds for community-based non-profit housing -- have been effective, but underfunded, corrupted by political cronyism, and, as Venkatesh writes, not adequtely linked to transportation, economic development programs, and social services programs or administered on a regional basis needed to address the realities of 21st century urban areas.

Since it was created in 1965, however, HUD's failures have been political failures -- the lack of support from the White House and Congress to adequately fund low-income housing, the political cronyism that allowed HUD programs to often be used as feeding troughs for politically-connected developers (such repeated "scandals"), the unwillingness of the White House and Congress to give HUD the authority and tools to address issues of fair housing, redlining, and snob zoning by suburbs that excluded low-income housing in affluent areas, and the lobbying power of the banking industry, which persuaded the White House and Congress to weaken regulations on lenders, so that all the key federal agencies (HUD, the Fed and other banking regulators, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) failed to deal with predatory lending and subprime lending until it became a crisis that threatens to sink the entire economy.

It isn't clear that abolishing HUD, as Venkatesh suggests, would solve any of these problems, but would simply move them to other agencies. Yes, it would be a great idea to have a federal government that dealt holistically with incomes, jobs, education, the social safety net, housing, transportation, pollution, and infrastructure, and maybe even reorganized the federal agencies so they did a better of collaborating. But dismantling HUD isn't likely to achieve any of those goals.

Since the first public housing projects were built in the early 1930s, federal housing programs have had successes and failures, depending on the political constituencies mobilized at the time. As Gail Radford shows in her book, Modern Housing for America, the first wave of New Deal public housing developments were successful - well-designed, well-built, and well-managed. But within a few years, the private real estate industry, threatened by their success, lobbied Congress to transform public housing into housing of last resort, with inadequate funding, poorly-build, typically in marginal areas, racially segregated, and with veto power by local governments.

Likewise, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was a political triumph of the civil rights movement, but ever since the Nixon administration, it has not been given the authority or tools to address the problem of racial discrimination by landlords, banks, and realtors for fear of alienating key political constituencies.

HUD has always been starved for funding, which is why government-subsidized housing for the poor is a lottery, not an entitlement. (Only one-quarter of the eligible families get any assistance). Meanwhile, the federal government provides tax breaks to wealthy homeowners (through the mortgage and property tax deductions) that they don't need, while few working class homeowners (and no renters) get any tax breaks at all. The size of federal homeowner tax breaks (over $100 billion a year) is almost three times the size of the HUD budget. The amount of those tax breaks going to the richest 10% of homeowners is larger than the entire HUD budget for low-income housing.

Since the late 1970s, conservative forces in American politics -- the fragile coalition of big business and the Religious Right, in particular -- have used their political clout to demonize government as a tool for social and economic improvement. Although public opinion has always been more pro-government than the views of the economic elite and opinion-shapers, the conservative forces have been effective at influencing public policy, through a combination of campaign contributions and pushing their ideas via think tanks, right-wing publications and talk shows, and effective voter identification and mobilization. The influence of the Right was so powerful at one point that even President Bill Clinton, a moderate Democrat, felt compelled to say that the "era of big government is over." Once in office, George W. Bush and his conservative allies in Congress have sought to dismantle government regulation of business around workers' rights, consumer safety, public health and the environment, and other key functions, reduce taxes overall and especially on the wealthy, and invest in much-need environmental, infrastructure, transportation, and housing so address the nation's future needs.

There were clear indicators in the 2006 mid-term elections, which will likely be confirmed in this November's races for the White House and Congress, that the nation's political mood has been shifting, frustrated by the war in Iraq, by widening inequality and declining economy security, and by the Bush administration's crony capitalism. It is still unclear, however, whether liberals and progressives can find a coherent policy agenda to replace the New Deal and the Great Society, to counter the right-wing's "anti-government" message, and to find a way to protect and expand social democracy at home in the midst of globalization. The question is, can the key elements of the liberal and progressive forces in the U.S. -- the labor movement, the environmental movement, the women's movement, the community organizing movement, and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party -- mobilize a majority of Americans in enough key states and Congressional districts around a new "social democratic" vision, and translate public opinion into public policy?

Abolishing HUD won't achieve any of those goals. We need a positive policy agenda that focuses on what we need to do in both the short-term (the next four and eight years) and the long term (the next 20 or 25 years). Then we can figure out the right bureaucratic structures to carry out those ideas.

1. To level the playing field for union organizing campaigns, we need to reform the nation's unfair labor laws.

2. To improve conditions for the growing army of the working poor, we need to raise the federal minimum wage (to at least the poverty level -- $9,50/hour),expand participation in the Earned Income Tax Credit, and add a housing component to the EITC to account for varying living costs in different parts of the country.

3. To provide adequate resources to house poor and working class families, we need to expand federal housing subsidies, and strengthen the capacity of nonprofit development and homeowner counseling programs. The federal government should no longer subsidize or insure housing developments built exclusively for the poor (including LIHTC-funded projects), but require mixed-income developments. We also need Washington to insist on construction of mixed-income housing in suburban areas and gentrifying urban areas (through a combination of carrots and sticks).

4. To guarantee an adequate supply of credit to expand the nation's housing supply and stablize financial markets, we need the federal government to impose strict regulations on lenders and brokers, streamline all the federal bank regulators into one agency, and take control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac while focusing its mission.

5. To address the nation's health care crisis, we need some form of universal national health insurance.

6. To improve our public schools, especially those that serve the nation's poorest children, we need to increase federal funding for smaller classrooms, adequate teacher training, and sufficient books and equipment. We cannot rely primarily on local and even state funding for public education.

7. To provide families with adequate child care, we need a universal child care allowance that reaches families regardless of income. This can only be accomplished with federal funding and some state matching formula that accounts for variations in states (and parents') ability to pay.

8. To redirect private investment in cities and older suburbs, we need to provide sufficient funds to clean up toxic urban brownfields.

9. To address the problems of growing traffic congestion, we need federal funds to improve public transit of all kinds as well as federal laws to limit tax breaks and other incentives that promote suburban sprawl and "leapfrog" development on the fringes of metropolitan areas.

10. To address the problems of environmental pollution and public health, we need to invest in research and development of "green" jobs and "green" industries, and train the next generation to work in them, as recommended by the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of environmental, labor and business groups.

Achieving these goals will take a generation.There are no short-cuts to changing the political climate. It will require the kind of sustained mobilization of ideas and people that characterized the Right for most of the last generation. We need to devise stepping-stone reforms that move us down this path, since we won't get there all at once. For example, we won't achieve any kind of single-payer national health insurance for a decade or more, but we need to find incremental steps that can marshall majority support in Congress (like the legislation sponsored by Senator Wyden). The task for reformers -- in housing and other areas -- is to help shape policy ideas that keep our eyes on the prize, but win legislative and regulatory victories that get us closer to the goals of real structural reforms. Abolishing HUD sounds dramatic, but it achieves neither the short-term nor long-term objectives that will get us closer to addressing the outrage of 36 million Americans below the official poverty line, and many more Americans living on the edge of social and economic catastrophe.

Peter Dreier
Occidental College

Dowell Myers said...


I can't tell if Prof. Venkatesh is laughing at us or maybe gloating. He sure got a reaction, but I cannot tell what is his purpose. Is it to promote regionalism a la Katz or Yaro? (Sounds that way toward the end.) Is it to promote community development al la Briggs? (Naww) Or is it to just raise the continuing question of people vs. place, as recently raised by Crane? (Well, he is a sociologist.) And just to muddy the waters, everyone should realize that the author doesn't even get to put his own title on the op-ed. Someone at the Times thought this was cute.

The problem is "housing." Housing is always the problem in planning because it fits in the middle of everything. We can never adequately compartmentalize housing, because it is both physical design and economic development. It is an anti-poverty service and also a wealth instrument. Mostly delivered by private means, housing is the most heavily regulated and serves the greatest public good. Is it about fixed location (unlike all other private goods), politics, economics or demographics? Housing synthesizes it all but never focuses on one thing and risks leaving some dissatisfied.

So what is HUD then? As Xav writes, it is about housing and also urban development. But if it is mainly about building better cities--well, dud. Or if HUD is only for the poor, it is not the most effective anti-poverty vehicle. And if it is about financing housing, a lot of more powerful federal agencies have stepped up lately. But at the intersection here, who else can do this job--Dept of Homeland Security? Not Treasury.

There simply is no neat simple solution for anything related to housing. It is just messy and needs to flex with the times. Most obviously, HUD does much better under Democratic administrations.

Meanwhile this guy from my alma mater is just pulling our chain.

Dowell Myers

Kathy Quick, UCI said...

The Continuum of Care for the Homeless structure that itself HUD introduced for regional coordination of homeless services is potentially a very good model for regional planning and integrated HUD service funding. I participated in the Alameda County Consortium in the San Francisco East Bay Area for several years, from about 2000 to 2003, and was very impressed by it, but I understand that there has been wild variation among consortiums around the country.

The structure requires regions to submit a consolidated regional application for all HUD programs related to transitional housing, homeless shelters, emergency services, etc. All jurisdictions in the area must meet, preferably with local service providers, to decide on approaches and priorities.

In Alameda County, the money hook brought us together. This was, by the way, quite a different dynamic from arguments about individual jurisdictions providing their "fair share" of affordable housing, as required by California law. In my observation in northern and now also southern California, that seems very often to devolve into advocacy groups having to attack individual jurisdictions for not doing their share, and puts individual cities into a defensive rather than a proactive posture about affordable housing provision.

Having the funding carrot does help. The Homeless Consortium had several useful outcomes in terms of taking a regional approach:

* It led us to recognize and reaffirm, repeatedly, that homelessness is a regional problem. This meant, for example, that it was not fair to expect Berkeley and Oakland to provide all of the shelters and bear all of the financial burden of those services - from their own city block grant, rather than through regional resources - just because homeless people tended to gather there. We were trying to interrogate the notion that other jurisdictions did not have and did not need to be concerned with the problem. In my experience the approach was quite effective. I was community development program manager at the time for a relatively affluent, but socially progressive jurisdiction, and it was quite helpful to have the Consortium standing behind me when I made the case to our own city government to do our part.

* Our get-togethers were a good foundation for information exchange. We learned about one anothers' services and upcoming events, got a chance to see other approaches, could do some shared problem-solving (e.g., we could figure out a coordinated, proactive response to Berkeley's closing down a long-established homeless encampment), and even help each other to mend some fences.

* We had passionate discussions about setting priorities, for example about funding short-term emergency shelter versus more costly but long-term strategies to build more supportive housing. We did not always reach agreement about this, but I think that the discussions did help us to develop a more balanced and integrated regional strategy.

* We were able to advocate back to HUD. We were not just beggars asking for funds, we were an organized, informed block that could press for policy reform as well. Very often, the discussions of priorities helped us to make a stronger argument for more funding. It's not as if we didn't know all along that there wasn't enough support for homeless services, but the consortium helped us to make a smarter argument, and to do so more powerfully as a group.

All of this is to say that there are some successful, HUD-initiated models for metropolitan-scale housing, urban development, and poverty alleviation strategies. This example deserves more attention. Perhaps once I've finished my dissertation...

Kathy Quick
PhD Candidate in Planning, Policy, and Design


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