Elizabeth Warren Introduces Plan to Expand Affordable Housing and Dismantle Racist Zoning Practices

Originally published in The Intercept on September 28, 2018.

This week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., introduced the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, one of the most far-reaching federal housing bills in decades. The legislation calls for a half-trillion dollar investment in affordable housing over the next 10 years, creating up to 3.2 million new units for low- and middle-income families.

The bill also expands the protections of decades-old legislation to reduce discriminatory banking, ban housing discrimination, and desegregate neighborhoods. For example, Warren’s bill would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against renters with federal housing vouchers, and would also impose new regulations on credit unions and nonbank mortgage lenders like Quicken Loans. The bill also incentivizes states and localities to loosen their racist and discriminatory zoning restrictions; eases the path for low-income families to move into more affluent communities; and provides federal assistance to first-time homebuyers from formerly segregated areas and those who saw their wealth decimated in the 2008 financial crisis.

Warren’s bill comes on the heels of two other federal housing bills introduced this summer by Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, of New Jersey and California, respectively. Harris’s bill, which came first, aims to provide financial relief to renters by creating a new refundable tax credit. Booker’s bill would also establish a refundable tax credit for renters and incentivize communities to curb their exclusionary zoning rules to increase housing supply. Booker, Harris, and Warren are all names frequently thrown around as 2020 presidential hopefuls, though none has actually announced their intent to run.

“Much of the housing discussion has been about affordability, production, and tenant protections, which are all really important issues,” said Philip Tegeler, the executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council. “What’s so powerful about Warren’s bill is that it aims to tackle all those things, and it also looks at how are we going to structure our society going forward. Fair housing is really embedded in the legislation, and that’s why I find it so creative.”

To incentivize states and communities to ease their zoning restrictions and boost affordable housing supply, a Warren aide told The Intercept, the senator’s staff looked at the Race to the Top program, the Obama administration’s signature education initiative. In Race to the Top, the federal government doled out $4 billion in competitive grants to states that adopted the administration’s preferred education reform policies, like lifting caps on charter schools and overhauling teacher evaluations. The program was massively effective: Forty-six states and Washington, D.C., revamped their policies to compete for the federal funds.

Warren’s bill takes that same competitive grant model, and allows states, metropolitan regions, and cities to compete for $10 billion in federal funds. (Race to the Top had two rounds of competitive funding; Warren’s bill proposes five.) To compete, jurisdictions must first reform their zoning restrictions and reduce other barriers to affordable housing production. Grant winners can then use the federal dollars to fund all sorts of projects, such as building parks and schools and improving local transit.

Often when new, dense housing developments are proposed, residents raise concerns about the overcrowding of schools or increased traffic congestion. Warren’s bill would arm political leaders with added resources to help make those housing tradeoffs a bit easier. Yes, increasing housing supply could lead to an increase in the public school student population, but reforming land use policies could also help cities access additional federal dollars to absorb those new residents more smoothly.

To fund the bill, Warren proposes a return to Bush-era estate tax levels, and increasing those taxes on the country’s 10,000 wealthiest families. The Massachusetts senator cited an independent study conducted by the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, an economics research firm, which determined that Warren’s bill was “fiscally responsible” and would “go a long way toward addressing” the affordable housing crisis. Moody’s projects the bill would lower rents by 10 percent and make it easier for low- and middle-income workers to live closer to their jobs, thereby reducing “long and costly commutes.”

POLITICIANS, INCLUDING PROMINENT progressives like Warren, have historically steered away from efforts to curtail exclusionary zoning, said Rick Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a liberal think tank. The difference now, he told The Intercept, is that “rents have become too damn high,” so elected officials, including presidential hopefuls, are more open to ideas that previously seemed too controversial to embrace.

Henry Kraemer, a Portland-based activist, co-authored an article in The Nation in May making the political case for Democrats to take up housing issues. In August, he followed up with a co-authored report laying out specific policy recommendations, such as new rent subsidies and expanded public housing. Kraemer and his report co-author, Laura Loe Bernstein, note that successfully enacting all their proposals would be “nearly or entirely impossible” without ending “apartment bans” — another name for exclusionary zoning. “Apartment bans restrict new home-building to the sort of single-family houses most commonly associated with suburbs and affluent neighborhoods,” they write. “Apartment bans are extraordinarily widespread, and render it illegal to build duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and other spaces where multiple families can live nestled together (and often more cheaply) on the same plot of land.”

Kraemer told The Intercept it’s “fantastic” to see 2020 hopefuls “putting out bold solutions to the housing crisis” that Democrats can pursue if they reclaim Congress and the White House. In the short term, Kraemer said, the Harris, Booker, and Warren bills “send the right signals” to state and local lawmakers.

“Maybe more than any other politician, Elizabeth Warren helped set the tone and agenda for the party’s economic work around the country,” Kraemer said. “To see her saying now that these historic inequities in housing and soaring rents and mortgages are huge problems — well, that’s a big, big deal.”

The Trump administration has also recently signaled its intent to address zoning rules, at least rhetorically. In August, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson came out to say that he, too, wants to use federal funds to loosen zoning restrictions. “I want to encourage the development of mixed-income multifamily dwellings all over the place,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

But progressives have voiced rightful skepticism of Carson’s newfound enthusiasm for zoning reform, as he’s also been leading the push to weaken civil rights protections from his federal perch. For the past year, HUD has been trying to weaken the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which was finalized in 2015 and designed to bolster fair housing enforcement. In August, the agency announced that over the next two months it would be opening the rule back up for public comment, claiming that “the current regulations are ineffective” and provide jurisdictions with “inadequate autonomy in developing fair housing goals.”

Carson went further in a statement, claiming that the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule is “suffocating investment” in distressed neighborhoods and contributing to the lack of affordable housing.

“When Ben Carson talks about zoning, he’s not really talking about exclusionary zoning. He’s talking about fair housing rules that prevent the piling on of all the low-income housing in poor neighborhoods,” said Tegeler, whose primary concern with Warren’s bill is that it lacks language to prevent the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal housing funds from pouring exclusively into poor areas.

“It’s very important that this continues to be a fair housing bill and not play into the Trump administration’s framing,” Tegeler said. “As this bill is further refined, we’d hope to see some protections against piling on the bulk of this new development in high-poverty, segregated neighborhoods.”

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Donald Trump and the GOP Are Expanding a Controversial Obama-Era Public Housing Program

Originally published in The Intercept on April 2, 2018.
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The most recent spending bill passed by the Republican Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump includes a massive expansion of a controversial program called Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, which privatizes public housing to preserve physical housing units. Despite the program’s threat to public housing in general, beleaguered affordable housing advocates have reacted with cautious approval, even as a government watchdog recently affirmed their long-term concerns, finding that the Department of Housing and Urban Development has insufficiently monitored the program and may be exaggerating its benefits.

In a 72-page report issued on March 22, the Government Accountability Office concluded, among other things, that HUD has not sufficiently monitored tenants’ experiences; has not ensured tenants can exercise all their rights; has dramatically exaggerated the amount of private capital generated through the RAD program; and has not done enough to ensure the long-term affordability of the units. The report issued five recommendations to improve the program, all five of which HUD said it agrees with.

Many affordable housing advocates are open to RAD, which works by allowing private companies to rehabilitate and manage public housing in exchange for tax credits and subsidies, but they have voiced concerns for years about what they consider to be wholly insufficient oversight for the federal program and potential risks for low-income tenants. GAO has now affirmed some of those fears with an independent assessment, yet lawmakers are moving to expand the program, accelerating the upending of traditional public housing.

At least one member of Congress has been skeptical of the program for years. “I have long expressed concerns that the conversion of public housing, under RAD, will risk the long-term affordability of this important housing resource and this GAO report serves as confirmation that RAD is in desperate need of reform,” Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said in a statement about the GAO assessment. Waters, the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee and one of the most outspoken critics of RAD, sent a letter to GAO in 2015 requesting a formal review of the program. A year earlier she had sent a letter to former President Barack Obama asking him to reconsider his RAD support, saying she believes it “may very well do more harm than good in diminishing a crucial public asset.”

RAD was one of a number of affordable housing programs to get a boost in the omnibus spending bill that Congress passed last month. The Obama administration first launched RAD seven years ago, and the program now boasts support from Democrats and Republicans, including HUD Secretary Ben Carson. It was conceived to address the biggest problem facing the nation’s 1.2 million public housing units: $49 billion in backlogged repairs and maintenance, leading to a permanent loss of 10,000 apartments every year.

Under the program, public housing authorities across the country are able to submit applications to HUD with requests to transfer all or some of their public housing stock to the private sector. If their applications are approved, they then negotiate RAD contracts, which are designed to renew every 15 to 20 years and require private developers to keep the units affordable for low-income tenants in perpetuity. Technically, all public housing tenants should be able to live in the private units if they want to, though housing advocates say this “right of return” is not always enforced.

Given the federal government’s refusal to sufficiently fund public housing — even Congress’s new $800 million investment in public housing rehabilitation will only make a small dent in the needed repairs — RAD supporters say privatizing the units is the best way to preserve the physical units over the long haul. Six years ago Congress authorized just 60,000 units, or 5 percent of the nation’s public housing stock, to be “converted” through RAD. Since then, Congress has repeatedly raised that capped number, most recently in the new omnibus bill, which bumps it from 225,000 units up to 455,000. In other words, 38 percent of the nation’s public housing has already been authorized for transfer to the private sector.

The federal government’s track record in privatizing public housing certainly warrants concern: When HUD launched a program in the 1990s to convert public housing units into mixed-income developments, the feds intentionally shrunk the number of affordable units, and thousands of tenants were permanently displaced. Another federal program launched in the late 1960s gave private developers tax credits and subsidies to build affordable housing, backed by 30-year mortgages. When those mortgages started to be paid off, many developers kicked out poor tenants and converted the buildings into middle-class and luxury housing.

HUD officials say they’ve studied their historical mistakes and have worked hard to design RAD in ways that will specifically avoid these past pitfalls. Indeed, RAD comes with a more robust set of tenant protections than other federal housing programs, but enforcement of these rights has been lacking to date. Last October, the National Housing Law Project sent a letter to Carson outlining a host of RAD oversight concerns, some of which were corroborated this month with the release of the long-awaited GAO assessment. For example, public housing residents who paid a flat rent are supposed to be guaranteed a phase-in of any rent increase under RAD exceeding $25, but GAO noted that HUD has not been tracking things like “changes in rent, as well as relocations or displacement of individual households.”

Tom Davis, the director of HUD’s Office of Recapitalization, which oversees the RAD program, told The Intercept that he finds the GAO report useful, but not too damning.

“One of the takeaways from the report is that given the scope of what they were looking at, their recommendations were really narrowly focused, and their recommendations were for things we have been already working on,” he said. “Their feedback is helpful, but these are also pretty on-the-margin kinds of critiques. We have tried to learn from history, and we think we have a pretty good scheme to avoid the risks to affordability.”

One of the findings of the GAO report was that HUD exaggerates how much private capital RAD generates. The federal housing agency claims that for every $1 in public money spent, RAD leverages $19 in private funds, while GAO estimates $1 in public money yields just $1.23 in private funds. Davis said the disparity results from a difference in methodology.

“We chose one methodology, the GAO chose another one, and we don’t think theirs is the best indicator of the impact of the program,” Davis said. “Theirs is legitimate, but we think ours is as well.” Their disagreement centers on issues like whether money that comes from private banks in anticipation of federal tax credits should be considered public or private dollars.

GAO also conducted some tenant surveys, reporting that RAD residents across its 14 focus groups said they had very mixed experiences in terms of transparency and assistance.

Davis said focus group data can be helpful in “identifying concerns” for HUD’s consideration, but noted the hazards of relying on anecdotal information. He pointed to a more formal survey HUD has commissioned on tenants’ RAD experiences, which will be released in late 2018 or early 2019. “A rigorous social science survey based on the evaluation of a statistical pool of participating tenants will give us a really strong sense of whether RAD is working for residents or not,” he said. “I think those lessons are going to be really important, so we’re really looking forward to that study.”

Aside from the GAO report, HUD published its own interim RAD evaluation in the fall of 2016. The study, conducted by a management consulting firm called Econometrica Inc., deemed RAD initially successful based off metrics such as the number of applications for conversion it processed, the amount of private financing it generated, and the number of RAD transactions closed. The interim report did not investigate the early impact of RAD on tenants.

Davis said the interim report “was very clear in affirming our view that this is a program that brings new sources of money to solve the problem of deferred capital housing needs.” While he acknowledged that GAO had identified some risks to affordability, he said they are not major risks, and expressed confidence in his agency’s ability to address those concerns. Davis also emphasized that not having RAD at all would pose far more risks to long-term housing affordability.

Jessica Cassella, a National Housing Law Project staff attorney who focuses on tenant protections under RAD, told The Intercept that one important issue highlighted by GAO is that HUD has been relying largely on local data collected by housing authorities and property owners. “As the GAO recommended, and as we think as well, HUD should have its own set of data,” Cassella said.

Last fall, HUD started requiring property owners to certify information about tenants’ experiences to the federal government. For the first time since the program’s inception, owners must now report how many residents came back to a converted RAD property and how many former public housing tenants did not return. To incorrectly certify information could be criminal fraud under the False Claims Act, punishable by thousands of dollars in fines and even prison sentences. Advocates view this new requirement as an improvement to the RAD oversight and monitoring process.

“Things always take longer to stand up than you think when it’s a government program,” said Davis. “Certification wasn’t initially required — [private companies] had to certify certain things at closing, but they didn’t have to come back after the project was complete to certify what actually happened [to tenants].”

Davis told The Intercept that this newly required tenant information has not yet been made publicly available because his team is “working through kinks and tweaking” data. He said HUD “discovered in the first few months of the reporting that some people interpreted questions differently, and we want to align that so the data is good when we make it public.”

But Cassella noted that HUD’s new certifications still fail to monitor all the rights that tenants are guaranteed, such as the right to relocate with a choice mobility voucher. Under RAD, tenants are entitled to request a voucher to move to any unit on the private market after living one or two years in a RAD-converted property.

“We have anecdotally encountered situations where housing authorities do not have procedures set up so tenants can exercise that right, and HUD does not have any way to currently monitor whether these moves are actually happening,” she said.

Cassella also pointed to GAO’s finding that roughly one-third of the public housing units chosen for RAD did not report making any capital repairs at the time of their conversion. “Given that there’s a $49 billion backlog, it’s hard to imagine how a third of those properties don’t need any repairs,” she said. “Maybe some of those repairs will be deferred to a later time, but when the stated purpose of RAD is to physically improve the properties, we would hope to see a lot more of those repairs happening early on.” It’s not clear how the federal government evaluates RAD applications that claim no immediate physical repairs are necessary.

Even if Congress one day lifts the cap on RAD to make all public housing units eligible for conversion to the private sector — as some groups have been advocating for — it is unlikely that every building in the public housing stock would make for a viable RAD candidate.

Some public housing units are in such bad shape that experts suspect not even tax credits or other federal subsidies will be enough to entice private developers to take over certain decrepit buildings. There’s a risk that, as RAD expands and most public housing units are converted to the private sector, those that aren’t converted will be the ones in the worst condition.

“If people had a bad image of public housing before, it’ll just get even worse,” said Alex Schwartz, a professor of urban policy at The New School, when I interviewed him about RAD in 2015. “It’s analogous to the health insurance pool — where all the healthy people leave, and then you’re just left with just those who have the most expensive health needs.”

Though HUD and affordable housing advocates don’t exactly see eye to eye, even the advocates are convinced that there might be no better option available at this time but to push for stronger HUD oversight.

“We’ve seen a number of problems, such as tenants being improperly discouraged from returning, owners or developers not accommodating people with disabilities, or the new construction not being suited to family needs,” said Brenda Castañeda, an attorney at the Charlottesville, Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice. “The RAD process could clearly benefit from active HUD oversight, as the GAO suggests.”

The Fight for the Suburbs

Originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of The New Republic.
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Due in no small part to his praise for white supremacists, his calls to deport immigrants, and his push to ban Muslims, Donald Trump has spurred Americans to protect racial minorities and work toward a more just society. That fight is playing out not just in sanctuary cities like New Haven and Los Angeles, or in the streets of Charlottesville. It is also being waged in Washington, at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

One of HUD’s central responsibilities is to implement the Fair Housing Act, the landmark anti-discrimination law that turns 50 years old in 2018. While efforts to desegregate inner cities continue at a frustratingly slow pace, fair housing advocates did win significant victories during the Obama years. In 2015, HUD issued a rule that provided local governments with new data tools to identify segregated living patterns and meet their legal obligations to promote integration. “These actions won’t make every community perfect,” Barack Obama said at the time. “But they will help make our communities stronger and more vibrant.” A year later, the administration issued another regulation to help families move out of poor, segregated neighborhoods—in part by increasing the purchasing power of their housing vouchers.

But Trump’s administration threatens to undercut these gains. HUD Secretary Ben Carson has criticized the Obama-era rules as “mandated social engineering” and promised his agency would “reinterpret” them. Over the summer, the department announced it would be suspending the rule to help poor families relocate to more affluent neighborhoods, prompting the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other civil rights groups to file a lawsuit in response.

But the struggle for fair housing is not simply a series of legal fights over regulations and subsidy formulas. It involves much larger battles—ones that take aim at Americans’ basic living patterns and the country’s history of government-sponsored segregation. And as the racial makeup of our cities and suburbs continues to shift, this conflict could profoundly impact U.S. electoral politics. Indeed, civil rights advocates maintain, a successful push for fair housing could transform not only the demographics of our country but even its political future.

The Fair Housing Act was born out of racial violence. Following the urban riots that exploded across the country in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson established the Kerner Commission to investigate the unrest. In February 1968, the commission pointed to insidious racial segregation as the cause, having created “two societies, one white, one black.” That month, Democratic Senator Walter Mondale and Republican Senator Edward Brooke—the only African American in the Senate—introduced the Fair Housing Act. The law would help create “truly integrated and balanced living patterns,” Mondale said.

Critics argued that making it easier for black families to move into white neighborhoods would trample their property rights and constitute “discrimination in reverse.” Still, as racial strife grew more pronounced, and as Martin Luther King Jr. traveled the country calling for an elimination of the nation’s slums, pressure to address segregated housing continued to mount.

King’s assassination on April 4, 1968 finally pushed fair housing through an otherwise recalcitrant Congress. The day after King’s death, Mondale took to the Senate floor and implored his colleagues to uphold King’s legacy by immediately passing the bill. Johnson signed the legislation into law six days later.

The Fair Housing Act has grown stronger over the years. Its protections now cover seven classes: race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and families with children. In 1988, Congress also beefed up the law’s enforcement mechanisms and increased the penalties associated with violating it.

Yet even with these gains, many urban areas still exhibit apartheid levels of segregation. In 2015, Mondale called integration the “unfinished business” of his fair housing law. “When high-income black families cannot qualify for a prime loan and are steered away from white suburbs, the goals of the Fair Housing Act are not fulfilled,” he said. “When the federal and state governments will pay to build new suburban highways, streets, sewers, schools, and parks, but then allow these communities to exclude affordable housing and nonwhite citizens, the goals of the Fair Housing Act are not fulfilled.” In many ways, the country remains divided into two societies—one white, one black.

Exploiting the country’s racial divisions has been a feature of modern American politics since at least Richard Nixon’s adoption of the Southern Strategy. Over the past half-century, Democrats have consolidated support in cities, while Republicans have increasingly targeted rural areas. Since Trump’s victory, these trends have fueled the argument that Democrats must win more white, working-class voters if they are to reclaim political power.

But this tidy framing of cities versus rural America overlooks today’s true electoral battleground: the suburbs. Following World War II, as affluent whites fled the inner cities, suburbs became a central pillar of support for the Republican Party. In 1980, 78 percent of suburban census tracts were predominantly white. That fell to 42 percent by 2009, and diverse suburbs jumped from 16 percent to 37 percent over the same period. Suburban areas, in other words, no longer resemble the Leave It to Beaver landscape of yesteryear. Today, more than 60 percent of suburbanites live in integrated or predominantly nonwhite areas.

These shifts present problems for the Republican Party—which has historically relied on the suburbs as bulwarks against blue cities—and opportunities for Democrats, as evidenced most recently by the gubernatorial election in Virginia. In 2016, though Trump won more suburban votes than Hillary Clinton, he was still the third Republican presidential candidate in a row to fail to win 50 percent of the suburban vote. Trump lost not only inner-ring suburbs around Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, but also places like Cobb County, Georgia—which The New York Times once referred to as the “suburban Eden where the right rules.”

Fair housing has always been partly political in its aim. “The existence of segregated residential patterns helps politicians draw safe districts for white voters,” says Elizabeth Julian, a former HUD official and founder of the Inclusive Communities Project, a Dallas-based fair housing group. She argues that breaking down the racial, ethnic, and economic barriers that prevent people from living where they’d like to is not only good policy, but could also defuse some of the explosive dynamics that gave rise to Trump, and bolster the Democratic coalition in the process. “The political potential of integration is an overlooked benefit of integration,” Julian says.

Policies that promote desegregation could, of course, invite backlash. White suburban voters could retreat further into the fast-growing, right-leaning exurbs. And those who stay put could grow even more conservative if they feel a greater sense that their neighborhoods are being threatened by newcomers who don’t look like them. Still, those who worry about what Trump represents would do well to explore the possibilities of integrated, inclusive communities as a way to deny racial demagogues easy political footing. The Fair Housing Act was passed to spare America from what seemed to be a looming collapse. Now, at 50, it may yet do so.

Court Forces Ben Carson To Be a Civil Rights Champion For a Day

Originally published in The Intercept on January 2, 2018.
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Ben Carson will soon deliver a major victory for civil rights activists on behalf of the Trump administration, implementing a new rule that will give more than 200,000 low-income families in 24 cities significantly improved access to housing in high-income neighborhoods.

Carson, however, has not suddenly become a champion of civil rights now that he is secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The rule was crafted by the Obama administration and a court ordered the Trump administration to enforce it.

The policy attempts to resolve a seeming defect in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s housing voucher program: that vouchers are worth the same amount across an entire region. That means most voucher holders can’t afford to move into wealthier neighborhoods because their subsidy isn’t large enough to cover rent. Landlords in poor neighborhoods can, in turn, price gouge voucher holders, who have nowhere else to go. The new rule requires public housing authorities to alter the way they calculate rent subsidies, effectively making vouchers worth more in affluent areas and worth less in poorer communities.

At the time of filing, HUD had offered little explanation for suspending the rule. It abruptly made its announcement in an August letter to public housing authorities, and when The Intercept asked for further comment in October, HUD spokesperson Brian Sullivan said there had been “no change in policy.” He pointed to an August 25 blog post drafted by Acting General Deputy Assistant Secretary Todd Richardson, which said the decision was “informed by research” and that it would be beneficial to delay the rule’s implementation to allow for further study.

On December 1, HUD offered more detail. In court filings, the federal agency argued its actions fell under its broad discretionary power and therefore, were not subject to judicial review. HUD also released a previously undisclosed August 10 memo from Carson, outlining the agency’s rationale for the rule’s delay. Carson’s memorandum relied heavily on findings from an interim report, which found that of five areas selected to pilot the Small-Area Fair Market Rents, the total number of available units went down. HUD lawyers argued that these findings “fully and independently justif[y]” the suspension.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell disagreed. In her 47-page decision, she granted the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction and outlined why HUD’s legal authority is more circumscribed than the agency purported. She also noted that the interim report upon which HUD was relying was based on five areas selected for criteria totally unrelated to the 24 metropolitan areas picked to be subjected to the rule. “This is really apples and oranges, isn’t it?” she asked Johnny Walker, a U.S attorney representing HUD in court.

Sasha Samberg-Champion, the attorney who argued on behalf of the plaintiffs at the December 19 hearing, told The Intercept that he and his colleagues were heartened and impressed by how well Howell understood the issues. “She was just phenomenally well-prepared, not only having read the parties’ briefing papers, but she also really dove into the documents presented,” he said. “I think HUD was just not prepared to answer questions at the level of specificity that she was asking.”

For example, when Howell asked HUD’s counsel if any of the 24 metropolitan areas had “formally, or even informally” requested that the federal government suspend its implementation of the Small Area Fair Market Rents rule, both Walker and HUD’s trial attorney David Sahli said they weren’t sure. Sahli eventually admitted that to his knowledge, no such request had been made. This was notable, because the final rule indicated that a suspension could occur at the request of a public housing authority.

One of the plaintiffs’ main arguments was that HUD violated the Administrative Procedure Act, an important federal statute that imposes specific limitations on the process of agency rule-making, including a requirement that agencies collect and respond to public comments. “HUD’s main argument was that there’s a regulatory provision that gives the secretary carte blanche to suspend the rule at any time for any reason, and the judge clearly was skeptical of that,” said Samberg-Champion.

Perhaps foreseeing Howell’s skepticism, HUD announced in early December that it would open up a 30-day period to solicit public comment about suspending the Small-Area Fair Market Rents rule. That 30 days began December 11.

HUD claimed that by opening up a month for public comment, it had rendered the plaintiffs’ procedural claims moot. “This argument is meritless,” wrote the plaintiffs in a reply brief filed in December. “If anything, HUD’s belated notice simply confirms the illegality of its suspension.”

“Procedurally, this is totally irrelevant because the Administrative Procedure Act doesn’t allow you to solicit comments belatedly,” explained Samberg-Champion. “But for whatever reason, atmospherically, HUD felt they needed to do this.”

It’s not clear whether HUD will appeal Howell’s decision. Sullivan, the HUD spokesperson, did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

“I’m not going to make any predictions about what HUD will or won’t do, but I hope they will now carry out the laws they’re supposed to,” said Samberg-Champion. “They have the right to appeal should they choose, but I hope they don’t do that. All they’d be doing is frankly stalling, and they would lose that as well.”

Ajmel Quereshi, a senior counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, another civil rights group participating in the lawsuit, told The Intercept that at a minimum, HUD has an obligation to “immediately begin working” with local housing agencies to implement the rule, so the new payment standards can take effect as soon as possible.

“We expect they’ll comply with the court order,” he said, “and we look forward to working with HUD to see positive results for thousands of families.”

Civil Rights Group Sue Ben Carson For Delaying Anti-Segregation Housing Reform

Originally published in The Intercept on October 23, 2017.
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A coalition of civil rights organizations filed a lawsuit on Monday against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its secretary, Ben Carson. The suit is aimed at stopping a move by Carson the civil rights groups say will only further racial and economic segregation.

A policy known as the Small Area Fair Market Rent rule was set to go into effect on January 1, 2018, after years of advocacy, research, and public debate. In August, however, HUD abruptly announced it would be delaying the rule’s implementation for two years, claiming that further study was needed.

Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesperson, told The Intercept that while his office cannot comment on any pending litigation, the delay of the Small Area rule does not represent any change in agency policy. “I gather there are some who believe this is a change of policy, or that it might signal a change in policy, but there is no change in policy,” he said. Sullivan also referred to a blogpost HUD posted on August 25 reiterating this point, specifically that the delay was a decision “informed by research” and that waiting until next summer when the pilot’s final report is released will allow for more successful implementation.

More than 5 million people in 2.2 million households use federal housing choice vouchers — colloquially referred to as Section 8, referencing the statute that created the subsidies — to help afford rent on the private market. The subsidies, however, are based on metropolitan-wide rent formulas, meaning that many low-income families are often relegated into communities with few job opportunities, poor schools, and high crime. The rule change would have required — or will require — public housing authorities to calculate so-called fair market rents based on ZIP-codes instead.

While tweaking a rent subsidy formula sounds minor and technical, the policy could impact millions of low-income people, especially African-Americans, who represent a disproportionate number of voucher-holders.

“The delay of this rule will have a segregative effect, denying these primarily African-American families who would want to move out of their neighborhoods the chance to do so,” said Ajmel Quereshi, a senior counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. “This case is about more than just housing. Of course they hope to live in a higher-quality residences, but it’s really about people who want to move to better and safer neighborhoods but they can’t because of the value of their voucher. It’s about schools and transportation and doctor visits and grocery stores that people want to be able to access to support their families.”

One such voucher recipient is Crystal Carter, an African-American woman living in Hartford, Connecticut, and a plaintiff in the suit. Carter had been looking forward to January, so that she could finally move herself and her five children out of their low-income neighborhood into a safer, nearby suburb.

The Small Area Fair Market Rent rule would, in effect, make housing vouchers worth more in more affluent areas, and worth less in poorer communities. As it stands now, most voucher recipients like Carter can’t afford to move into nicer  neighborhoods because their subsidy isn’t large enough to cover rent.  Landlords in segregated neighborhoods can, in turn, price gouge their voucher-holding tenants, who have little choice but to pay up.

The lawsuit — brought by attorneys with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Public Citizen, and Relman, Dane and Colfax — argues that HUD’s failure to implement the Small Area rule violates the Administrative Procedures Act, the statute which governs how federal agencies propose and implement regulations. The attorneys have called on the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia to temporarily and permanently enjoin the suspension of the rule.

This lawsuit is the latest in a series filed over the past nine months against the Trump administration for violating the act. When Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency rescinded a rule requiring dental offices to reduce the amount of mercury they discharged into the environment, anadvocacy group sued, arguing that the EPA violated the Administrative Procedures Act by failing to provide sufficient notice or opportunity for public comment. (The EPA has since reinstated the rule.) When 19 Democratic state attorneys general sued the Department of Education in July forindefinitely delaying rules that would provide increased protection for student loan borrowers, they argued that the department violated the Administrative Procedures Act, again failing to give sufficient notice and time for comment.

“So much about this administration’s violation of norms is about pushing the envelope, seeing how much they can get away with before the courts step in,” said Megan Haberle, a Poverty Race and Research Action Council attorney involved with the new HUD lawsuit.

The new lawsuit was borne out of an earlier HUD case, filed in 2007 by the Inclusive Communities Project, a Texas-based fair housing organization. The group challenged HUD’s policy of setting a single fair market rent for the 12-county Dallas metropolitan region, alleging that its formula violated the Fair Housing Act by effectively steering black renters away from predominantly white areas, and confining them into poorer, segregated ones. The lawsuit was settled in 2010, with HUD agreeing to institute fair market rents at the ZIP-code level in Dallas. In 2014, researchers published an independent study of Dallas’s experiment with ZIP-code level rent subsidies, finding that the new policy enabled many low-income voucher holders to move into more affluent communities and at no net-cost to the government.

Fair housing advocates who wanted to see the Small Area rule expanded beyond Dallas kept up pressure on HUD to revamp its policies across the board. The federal housing agency eventually responded by launching a pilot study in 2012, testing the policy in five states. By 2016, HUD had collected enough data to determine that voucher recipients’ average neighborhood poverty level decreased after switching to Small Area Fair Market Rents and that the moves were relatively cost-effective.

On November 16, 2016, HUD published its final rule requiring 187 public housing authorities across 24 metropolitan regions to adopt Small Area Fair Market Rents. The metro regions — selected for their degree of voucher concentration and their housing vacancy rates — were given until January 1, 2018, to implement the new ZIP-code-level formula.

Advocates were incensed when the Trump administration pulled the plug a little over two months ago, without offering clear explanation why.

“HUD is required by law to go through a process that opens what it’s doing to public comment, to be transparent, and they’ve shirked that obligation very clearly,” said Haberle, the Poverty Race and Research Action Council attorney. “As far as is there a speculative rationale here even if HUD isn’t articulating it? No.”

Haberle emphasized that HUD’s rule drafting process was painstaking, beginning with the Dallas lawsuit, the pilot studies and their evaluations, and many stakeholder consultations thereafter. Moreover, four days after HUD announced it would be delaying the rule, it released its interim pilot report, finding that the Small Area rule was working largely as expected.

The Small Area rule has been opposed by housing industry groups such as the National Association of Home Builders, the National Apartment Association, and the National Multifamily Housing Council. The National Association of Home Builders applauded the Trump administration’s suspension of the rule, which they had urged Carson to rescind in a private June meeting.

Under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, HUD carries an affirmative obligation to reduce racial segregation in federal housing programs. As HUD made clear in 2015, this means it must take proactive steps to “overcome the legacy of segregation, unequal treatment, and historic lack of opportunity in housing.”

“Violations in every Administrative Procedures Act case sound so boring, but this lawsuit is significant not only because it challenges the way the Trump administration tries to break the law, but also because of what’s actually at stake for the people who were counting on access to these vouchers,” said Allison Zieve, an attorney with Public Citizen. “This will have a concrete effect on real people who were counting on this.”

The Hopes and Fears Around Ben Carson’s Favorite Public Housing Program

Originally published in CityLab on April 21, 2017.

When Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren asked Ben Carson what he would do as HUD secretary to address the condition of U.S. public housing, Carson enthusiastically singled out one program for praise—the Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD), a five-year-old federal initiative that has gone largely under the radar. He said he’s “very encouraged” by RAD’s early results, and “looks forward to working with Congress to expand this worthy program.”

RAD works by transferring public housing units to the private sector, so that developers and housing authorities can tap into a broader range of subsidies and financing tools to rehab and manage the units. Given Congress’s refusal to adequately fund public housing and the billions of dollars needed for backlogged repairs, supporters say RAD is the best available option to preserve the affordable units, lest they become too uninhabitable for anyone to live in at all.

Roughly 60,000 public housing units have been converted to project-based Section 8 rentals through RAD since its launch in 2012, and Congress has authorized 185,000 units to be converted in total. Technically, all public housing tenants should be able to return to the private units if they want to, though housing advocates fear the RAD statute has loopholes that could prevent this goal from coming true.

It’s little surprise that RAD—a revenue-neutral program that leverages the private sector—might appeal to leaders like Carson. RAD has garnered strong bipartisan support among Republican and Democratic legislators alike, and many expect its congressional cap to be lifted altogether in the coming years, potentially setting the stage for a radical change to much of the nation’s public housing.

But there are housing advocates concerned about how fast RAD is moving, and they warn that oversight and transparency remain mixed at best. For some tenants, the conversions have been a nightmare.

Katrina Jones, a single mother of three, had been living in public housing for a decade when she learned that her subsidized building in Hopewell, Virginia, would be razed through RAD, and new affordable apartments would be built in its place. Jones, who has one daughter confined to a wheelchair, was thrilled by the prospect of long-overdue housing repairs and upgrades for her 1960s-era building.

However, according to HUD complaints filed in December, the Hopewell housing authority and the nonprofit RAD developer refused to make accommodations for Jones and her family, convincing her to take a tenant buy-out. At the time, Jones’ son was facing criminal charges (which were later dropped), and she needed money to pay his attorney fees. Jones says the housing authority knew about her son’s situation, and pressured her to take the money and leave., half of which went towards paying attorney fees to defend her son against criminal charges that were later dropped. Jones says the housing authority knew about her son’s situation, and pressured her to take the money and leave.

Jones now works at WalMart and pays $1,450 per month for an accessible unit in Chester, Virginia; her public housing rent had been $400 a month. “I’m living a whole new life right now where I’m struggling more every single day just to keep my current apartment,” she says. “These people don’t care what happens to you once you’re out.”

Jones is one of a dozen former tenants named in complaints recently filed by Virginia legal aid lawyers who say the Hopewell RAD conversions violated a wide range of federal laws and regulations—including unlawful threats of eviction and discrimination against families with children and the disabled. HUD is investigating the allegations, but tenant advocates say the problems documented in Hopewell reflect larger accountability issues related to the program.

It’s not just in Virginia. John Kelly, a 74-year-old tenant living in public housing in San Francisco, is currently under threat of eviction for not signing the lease of his building’s new RAD landlord, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC). Kelly, who has been reaching out to housing nonprofits and HUD for the past six months, says the lease he’s being asked to sign is “illegal, dishonest, unconscionable.”

Kelly describes himself as “not a big fan” of government, and he thinks private organizations could do a better job of managing his building than the San Francisco housing authority. But his experience dealing with RAD, he says, has been terrible.

Terry Bagby, a 58-year-old veteran who also lives in Kelly’s building, agrees it’s been extremely stressful. “A lot of our questions go unanswered by all these different agencies that come and have meetings with us,” he says. “I’m surprised I haven’t had another heart attack or stroke dealing with all this nonsense. I’d move out of this city in a heartbeat if I could.”

TNDC did not return multiple requests for comment, but Sarah Sherburn-Zimmer, executive director of the San Francisco-based Housing Rights Committee, says local groups have been working closely with the city to monitor RAD conversions. Some developers have been responsible, she says; with others it’s been more of a struggle.

“Tenants are distrustful, for real reasons,” says Sherburn-Zimmer, referring to the city’s history of displacement and eviction. “You definitely get some agencies who have young workers, new to town, who tell tenants everything is going to be great. Tenants aren’t stupid; they want everything in writing.”

Whether these are isolated incidents or signs that RAD portends greater risks for tenants in the future is not yet clear. The serious shortcomings of earlier housing programs like HOPE VI and Section 236 loom large. Both Bagby and Kelly expressed fears that their city’s commitment to low-income housing will eventually disappear.

Kim Rolla, a lawyer who helped file the Hopewell complaint, says she and her colleagues got a lot of pushback from other affordable housing advocates after contacting the media about HUD’s investigation. “It was the same week that the budget cuts were announced, and they said, ‘Why would you criticize this HUD program right now?’”

Jessica Casella, a staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project, says that Hopewell is the most egregious complaint she’s heard of, but her organization has documented many kinds of tenant RAD issues over the past few years. She also admits there are many places where nobody really knows how these conversions are going. “One of our major concerns is the level and quality of oversight by HUD,” says Casella. “I think HUD has put its emphasis on getting properties to closing, and much less effort in making sure that after deals are finalized, the transitions go smoothly.”

Transparency around RAD has also been a challenge for advocates, academics, and reporters. Rolla says she and her colleagues faced serious difficulty accessing basic information about the Hopewell RAD deal—and their request to have hundreds of dollars in FOIA fees waived was denied on the grounds that such disclosures were “not in the public interest.”

Tom Davis, the director of HUD’s Office of Recapitalization, which oversees RAD, says his agency is trying to make RAD “the gold standard in terms of protections of residents,” noting that it has far more rules and regulations for tenant treatment than almost any other federal housing program. Davis says there’s also been a lot of work over the last 18 months to upgrade the procedures related to how HUD monitors properties post-conversion, including proactively reaching out to public housing authorities to ensure there are no issues.

“I think if there are any agencies out there meant to protect us, they’re not funded that well,” said Terry Bagby, wearily. “They probably don’t have a lot of people working on their staff, and are underpaid.”

Going forward, as HUD continues investigating Hopewell, advocates hope to make sure that the federal housing agency’s commitment to RAD oversight doesn’t waver.

Unlearning the lessons of the housing crisis

Originally published in Curbed on January 19, 2017.
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Nearly six million American families lost their homes to foreclosure between September 2008 and September 2015.

This unprecedented housing crisis, promulgated by well-documented Wall Street fraud and predation, led—eventually—to government action, culminating in July 2010, when President Obama signed the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act into law.

Dodd-Frank outlawed some prominent forms of predatory lending and established a new agency—the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—whose primary mandate is to aggressively penalize firms for fraudulent and shady business practices. Three years after its launch, the CFPB had addressed more than 400,000 consumer complaints concerning issues like unauthorized credit card fees and ballooning mortgage payments, and distributed more than $10 billion in settlements back to consumers.

Another three-odd years later,  Donald J. Trump’s surprising presidential victory has sent a deep chill down the spines of housing and civil rights advocates across the country. In his capacity as a developer, Trump was a defendant in one of the largest cases ever brought by the federal government for housing discrimination against African-Americans. In his short political career, he has pledged to deregulate the housing and financial sectors, and his early cabinet appointments have close ties to Wall Street.

“We’re about a decade out from the housing crisis, and it’s important that we don’t succumb to this collective amnesia about what happened,” says Sarah Edelman, the director of housing policy at the Center for American Progress. “We’re at real risk of returning to predatory lending and losing the protections Congress put in place to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 bars landlords, lenders, and sellers from discriminating based on race, sex, religion, or national origin, and requires recipients of federal funds to proactively promote housing integration. In 2015, under Obama, the Department of Housing and Urban Development released a new federal rule—known as the “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule”—to provide communities with new tools to ensure they meet their fair housing obligations.

At the time, Republicans decried the AFFH rule as government overreach. Trump’s now-nominee for HUD secretary, Ben Carson, called it a dangerous “social engineering” scheme in an opinion piece published during his 2015 primary run. And while campaigning for president, Trump said he’d rescind the rule.

Already active litigation regarding violations of housing and civil rights law would also likely be stymied by a motivated Trump administration. For context, the civil rights division of the Department of Justice filed more than 100 lawsuits between 2012 and 2015, with a majority of those casesconcerning housing and lending discrimination. Former DOJ officials predictthat Trump’s administration will not be as committed to enforcing fair housing laws, especially if the Senate confirms Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as the incoming attorney general.

Sessions allegedly railed against the NAACP and the ACLU for trying to “force civil rights down the throats of people,” according to testimony at his 1986 confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship (he was ultimately denied the position because of such remarks). If Sessions brings this point of view to his new role, Justice Department lawyers working on fair housing cases could be reassigned, and Trump’s team could simply avoid pursuing similar suits in the future.

Stuart Rossman, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, raises several additional concerns for fair housing advocates. For the past few years, two homeowners’ insurance trade associations have been challenging a 2013 HUD rule that formalized how housing discrimination cases could be tried under the so-called “disparate impact” standard, which lets individuals allege housing discrimination without having to prove that someone intentionally sought to discriminate.

The Obama administration has vigorously defended the rule in court. “Will the [Trump] government now throw up their hands and send their lawyers home?” asks Rossman. If the rule is thrown out, individuals may find it more difficult to bring fair housing cases forward.

And then there’s the matter of proving these cases once they’re on the docket. At present, the federal government collects detailed demographic data from banks under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, including price data for loans and information about who has been denied service. “Banks very much want to keep this information private, because they know when it’s collected it will be scrutinized,” Rossman explains. By evaluating HMDA data, lawyers can assess if banks are treating some groups of people differently than others.

“I’m not saying there’s not overt discrimination cases out there, but the systemic, institutional type of cases which affect a broad range of individuals are far more likely to [fall under] disparate impact,” Rossman says. “The banks, auto lenders, and insurance companies are far too sophisticated to engage in overt sexism, racism, and ageism. If you can’t get that aggregate analysis to make a disparate impact claim, you’re in a really bad spot to sue.”

Since the HMDA’s passage in 1975, each administration has had a fair amount of discretion to interpret the law. If, say, Trump’s team decides they don’t need to require banks to report as much information as they do now, changing HUD’s disclosure requirements, lawyers could find themselves locked out from the sort of aggregate data needed to prove housing discrimination in court.

Rossman also points to a tactic taken by George W. Bush’s administration, which used the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to protect banks from civil rights suits initiated by state attorneys general and private lawyers. That means there are multiple strategies the Trump administration could pursue to avoid fair housing litigation at both the federal and local levels.

On the finance side of the equation, Trump’s nominee to lead the Treasury Department is Steven Mnuchin—a Goldman Sachs veteran of 17 years. Mnuchin founded and ran a mortgage lender, OneWest Bank, that was recently accused of housing discrimination in a federal complaint filed by two nonprofit groups. According to the complaint, OneWest (now a subsidiary of CIT Bank), was far more likely to foreclose on black and Latino homes than to lend to those owners, and neglected to maintain foreclosed homes in black and Latino neighborhoods, hastening their decline, while it actively maintained foreclosed homes in majority white areas.

“Mnuchin has a lot of rhetoric about his interest in protecting working families, but that’s not what his record has shown,” says Paulina Gonzalez, the executive director of the California Reinvestment Coalition, one of the groups to lodge the complaint. “The evidence speaks for itself.” That evidence now includes a newly disclosed 2013 memo from the California attorney general’s office alleging that OneWest repeatedly flouted a variety of foreclosure laws.

Mnuchin isn’t the only Goldman alum lined up to set financial policy in the Trump era. The president-elect has also named Gary Cohn, the president and COO of Goldman Sachs, to direct the National Economic Council, the president’s main forum for economic policy advice. Likewise, Jay Clayton, a Wall Street attorney whose firm has long represented Goldman Sachs, was recently nominated to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission. During the last administration, SEC regulations were key to holding banks accountable for bad behavior that led to the mortgage crisis, but the New York Times calls Clayton’s appointment “a strong signal that financial regulation in the Trump administration will emphasize helping companies raise capital in the public markets over tightening regulation.”

Trump will also have the ability to appoint leaders to all three of the major financial regulatory agencies: the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the OCC. “Though the good news is we now have legal standards that prohibit irresponsible lending, it only underscores how important those regulatory agencies are, and their leadership,” says John Taylor, the president and CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

“These appointments are critical,” Taylor continues. “Is [Trump] finding people whose first obligation is to ensure that average working class Americans are treated fairly, or is he looking out primarily for the businesses and agencies that might be affected by regulation?”

Ultimately, housing advocates worry about what will happen if Trump and congressional Republicans deregulate the housing industry and repeal the young Dodd-Frank law. Trump’s transition team has already said it’s looking to “dismantle” Dodd-Frank and Mnuchin has said targeting it would be a top priority for him. Many experts have suggested that rather than go through the trouble of repealing Dodd-Frank entirely, Republicans may look for ways to starve it, rendering it ineffective.

David Dayen, journalist and author of Chain of Title, a 2016 bestseller on the foreclosure crisis, says Trump may even be motivated to “weaponize” Dodd-Frank—using it to selectively advance his personal goals.

For example, Obama’s Justice Department has been pressuring Deutsche Bank to pay billions of dollars for its malfeasance during the housing crisis. Trump owes Deutsche Bank $364 million. Similarly, the FDIC and the Federal Reserve have been investigating Wells Fargo for anti-consumer practices. Donald Trump owes $410 million to Wells Fargo. Dayen sums up Trump’s fiscal conflicts of interest: “Trump may find it very appealing to be able to prosecute some financial institutions and not enforce rules at others.”

The unraveling of post-housing crisis protections could be especially dangerous as Republicans talk animatedly about privatizing Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the quasi-public agencies that help stabilize the U.S. housing market by securing the insurance markets and keeping mortgage rates low. Mnuchin has already said the next administration will get the government out of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

On top of housing discrimination fears, advocates worry about what Trump’s administration could do to exacerbate demand for affordable housing across strata: for homeowners and renters, urbanites and rural dwellers. “After millions had their homes foreclosed upon, and millions more millennials delayed homeownership due in part to crushing student loan debt, demand for rental units has reached its highest levels since the 1960s, resulting in skyrocketing rents,” explains Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Between 2005 and 2015, roughly nine million households moved from owning homes to renting—the largest change over any 10-year period on record. As a result, Wall Street firms started investing more heavily in single-family rentals, and a recent report out of Atlanta found that these institutional landlords were more likely to evict tenants than mom-and-pop ones. “It’s really important to keep watching these companies as they develop, because many of them are not located in jurisdictions with strong tenant protections,” Sarah Edelman says.

The stakes are high, and the litany of housing risks is long. But, thanks to the progress made over the last eight years, advocates at least will enter the Trump years with language and policy proposals they lacked a decade ago when foreclosures hit en masse. “Back then, progressives didn’t have a shelf of ideas, or the architecture to actually make the system safer,” says Dayen. This anti-discrimination framework will be threatened, and in some cases dismantled, under Trump. But it can also be defended, and restored.

 

 

Ben Carson, the GOP, and Subsidized Housing

Originally published in T’he American Prospect on December 16, 2016.
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Last week, Ben Carson, Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, gave a talk at Yale University. He told students that the rumors that he planned to end housing programs for the poor are “a bunch of crap” and there is “no way” he’d ever do that. But housing advocates shouldn’t relax just yet. Even if Carson and Trump decide not to axe entire programs, they could still implement policies that create all sorts of new hardships for the millions of low-income people who live in public housing and use federally subsidized housing vouchers.

Trump would not be the first president to go after federal benefits for the poor. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which dramatically upended welfare in the United States. The law mandated two significant changes: the imposition of time limits for cash assistance, and the requirement that welfare recipients seek employment.

The welfare reforms of the 1990s have decimated low-income families. Over the past two decades, the number of families living in extreme poverty increased by 159 percent, while the number of families receiving cash assistance plummeted. Though more single mothers entered the workforce, the low-wage jobs they managed to find did little to alleviate their poverty. Moreover, when the economy tanked during the Great Recession, roughly one-fifth of all poor single mothers could neither find work nor access welfare. In 2015, researchers Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer wrote that more than a million U.S. households with roughly three million children survive on less than $2 per day.

Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and failed GOP presidential contender who recently said that he felt unqualified to lead any federal agency, is likely to rely on congressional Republicans who have long sought to adapt Clinton’s welfare reforms to federal housing policy.   

In mid-November, Representative Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who chairs the Financial Services Committee that oversees HUD, spoke at the Exchequer Club in Washington, D.C., and said the federal housing agency “symbolizes the left’s top-down, command and control, centralized planning approach” that measures compassion for the poor “based on how many programs Washington creates” and how much money it spends. He vowed to switch gears, and “bring new ideas to the table” to fight poverty.

Indeed, shortly afterward, in Dallas, he told the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families forum that Republicans would “turn the page” on housing come January. “The new Congress will help lift the poor onto the ladder of opportunity by attacking poverty at its roots, starting with work,” Hensarling said. “We will reform our housing programs for the poor to reflect the value of work.”

He added that HUD rental assistance programs, such as Section 8 vouchers and public housing, while they may be helpful, “do not promote economic freedom” and actually stand in the way of upward mobility. He promised to align housing benefits with cash assistance for “work-capable” recipients in order to “encourage” individuals to move towards jobs, careers, and economic independence.

House Speaker Paul Ryan also endorsed these ideas in his “Better Way” policy agenda, released in June. He said the federal government should “expect work-capable adults to work or prepare for work” in exchange for welfare benefits. He also called for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits to align with housing assistance.

These conservative proposals would have a devastating impact on people who are unable to meet work-for-benefits requirements. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than half of all recipients who lived in federally subsidized housing in 2015 were elderly or disabled, and more than a quarter of all households had a working adult. Six percent had a preschool-aged child, or a disabled child or adult.

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While CBPP says there’s little evidence available on the effectiveness of work requirements in federal housing programs, there’s ample data to show that cash assistance work requirements have done little to increase employment over the long-term, and have even sunk families into deeper, more severe poverty. This is critical to note given the significant barriers low-income individuals face to accessing stable jobs. As CityLab’s Brentin Mock found, workplace racial discrimination, employment penalties associated with incarceration, entry-level jobs that go to college graduates, and increased automation have all made it even harder for the poor to lock down steady employment.

As Jared Bernstein, a CBPP senior fellow, told The Atlantic: “I cannot overemphasize the importance of this fundamental flaw in poverty policy, i.e, the assumption that there is an ample supply of perfectly good jobs out there that poor people could tap if they just wanted to do so.”

Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coaltion, took to Twitter last week to push back on Paul Ryan’s proposal to impose work requirements on public housing residents and federal voucher recipients. She urged the House speaker to invest his energy in devising strategies to make housing more affordable for low-income people. Only one out of four eligible low-income renter households even receive federal housing assistance, Yentel noted, and it’s those unassisted families in particular who are “one illness, job loss, or paycheck away” from homelessness.

Congressional Republicans’ interest in imposing work requirements and time limits on federal housing subsidies fit in well with the conservative rhetoric that Ben Carson has spewed over the past several years. During his presidential run, Carson insisted that welfare programs create cultures of dependency, harm poor families, and even “reward” people for having babies out of wedlock. Some have suggested that Carson’s lack of policy experience could mean he’d bring fresh blood and a “blank slate” to the housing agency. That’s doubtful. His dangerous ideas about welfare and work are already deeply ingrained, and, unfortunately, poised for prime time.

Should a New Tax Credit From Washington Subsidize Housing for the Middle Class?

Originally published in Next City on November 8, 2016.
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As voters head to the polls to vote on their next president, they will likely encounter a campaign ad or two promising that the candidate in question will deliver a better future for America’s middle-class.

But while presidential elections have long been about playing to the middle-class — or those who consider themselves to be in that hallowed American demographic, the question of how to build housing for them is now coming to Congress.

An Oregon senator has introduced a bill to create a new federal program that would incentivize developers to build and preserve housing accessible to those families earning up to 100 percent of the area median income. In Portland, where the senator lives when he is not in Washington, the 2016 AMI for a family of four is $73,300.

The “Middle-Income Housing Tax Credit” proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is modeled after the 30-year-old Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, the largest federal program to support placed-based affordable rental housing, which requires that units must target those earning 60 percent or less of the AMI. Wyden’s idea is to create a program for middle-class families who struggle to afford housing, but who earn too much to qualify for federal subsidies restricted to the poor. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, as the housing industry — including powerful lobbying groups such as the National Association of Home Builders— lines up behind the bill, a growing number of advocates for low-income populations and affordable housing organizations are saying no — and urging the Senator to focus on those with the most several housing needs instead.

National Low-Income Housing Coalition president Diane Yentel says Wyden’s bill is a misguided and wasteful use of federal resources. In an email to Next City, Yentel said that data clearly shows that for households in the 80 percent to 100 percent income band, there’s little to no need for a federal solution. Just 101,623 of those renters are severely cost burdened, compared to the 7.8 million extremely-low income households that have severe cost-burdens.

“There are literally more children living in homeless shelters than there are severely cost-burdened middle-income renters,” Yentel wrote.

For households earning 61-80 percent of AMI that are severely cost-burdened, Yentel says you’ll find them clustered in just a few cities and a better solution to address those problems would be through a different bill co-sponsored by Wyden. That bill would allow some LIHTC developments to target households up to 80 percent of AMI, and to construct more low-income housing through the National Housing Trust Fund. This, she says, would create a “reverse filtering effect” that would help move extremely-low income individuals into affordable housing, and out of housing that would otherwise be affordable to households higher up the income scale.

Defenders of the middle-income tax credit proposal point to data released by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies that found that in the 10 highest-cost metro areas, 75 percent of renter households earning $30,000-44,9999, and half of those earning $45,000-74,999 were cost burdened in 2014. In the Oregon cities represented by Wyden, more and more renters are feeling the pressure of a hot housing market.

“One of the arguments the LIHTC people brought up is that if the MIHTC passes, it will take funding away from the LIHTC,” says Carol Ott, an affordable housing advocate in Baltimore. “I’m concerned about this, but I firmly believe if we work hard enough, we can have both.”

Low-income housing advocates are skeptical. In the next Congress there will be major pushes to increase the LIHTC, to create a renters’ tax credit for the lowest-income families, to increase spending for family homelessness, to expand the Section 8 voucher program, and to increase funding for the National Housing Trust Fund. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimates that Wyden’s MIHTC proposal would cost $4.5 billion annually when fully implemented, and that to pass such a large housing subsidy for the middle class would very likely crowd out the political will for even larger investments for the poor.

A spokesperson for Wyden’s office told Next City that they’re not worried this would crowd out funding for low-income households, and that if state housing authorities want to use their Middle-Income Housing Tax Credit dollars to bolster their Low-Income Housing Tax Credit pool, they can do that.

Wyden is the Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, and if Democrats regain control of the Senate after Election Day, his office says that pushing forward the Middle-Income Housing Tax Credit would “absolutely” a top legislative priority.

What The Texas Ruling Means for Fair Housing

Originally published in Next City on September 9, 2016.
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Fair housing advocates scored a major victory in 2015 when the Supreme Court upheld the so-called “disparate impact” standard, a legal theory that says individuals can allege housing discrimination under the federal Fair Housing Act without having to prove that someone intentionally sought to discriminate. The Inclusive Communities Project (ICP), a Dallas-based nonprofit, had argued in court that the Texas Department of Housing awarded its low-income housing tax credits in a way that perpetuated segregation, concentrating affordable housing in black neighborhoods with high poverty.

Lost amid the excitement of the nation’s highest court reiterating the aims of the Fair Housing Act, a law passed in 1968 that bars housing discrimination and requires recipients of federal funds to promote housing integration, was that ICP’s original case got sent back to a lower court for review. Two weeks ago, a district judge in Texas issued a new ruling for this case, finding that ICP failed to prove housing discrimination under the disparate impact theory. Their case has been dismissed, and they have not yet decided if they’ll appeal.

Fair housing disparate impact cases are fairly rare, and also hard to win. Stacy Seicshnaydre, a professor at Tulane University Law School, has analyzed the history of disparate impact claims brought under the Fair Housing Act. She found that plaintiffs were successful in only 20 percent of their cases on appeal, a notably low rate.

Seicshnaydre says that disparate impact cases under the Fair Housing Act are just generally more expensive and difficult, compared to other kinds of suits. They tend to require more outside expertise, for example, since one has to include a statistical analysis demonstrating there have been disparities.

“A Supreme Court decision eliminating the disparate impact theory would have been a huge setback,” says Seicshnaydre. “The fact that the district court decided the ICP didn’t prove its case is disappointing, but it doesn’t have the same impact that a Supreme Court decision would have had. Disparate impact theory is still recognized as a good theory, so I think that’s still an incredibly favorable result for the fair housing movement.”

Indeed, the past year and a half has brought about a host of additional gains for integration advocates. Just before the Supreme Court released its decision in 2015, Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz released a study illustrating the connections between one’s geography and economic mobility. The researchers analyzed which counties were the worst for facilitating upward mobility, demonstrating how opportunity is significantly impacted by where a person grows up. Research released this spring by Eric Chyn, an economist at the University of Michigan, found additional evidence to support the idea that moving poor children into higher-opportunity neighborhoods carries long-term benefits for them as adults.

The federal government has also stepped up its efforts to promote fair housing. Following the Supreme Court decision, HUD released a new federal rule to provide communities with the supports they need to meet their fair housing obligations. They have since pushed for historic fair housing settlements in places like Maryland and Minnesota, emphasizing the need to affirmatively integrate housing under the Fair Housing Act.

“These efforts and events are having an impact. They’re encouraging, and sometimes forcing, communities to grapple with difficult, entrenched issues that were decades in the making,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Much more scrutiny is being given to where and how affordable housing is developed.”

There have also been notable improvements in Texas since ICP first brought its original suit. The state agency revised its process for allocating housing tax credits, now offering greater rewards to developers seeking to build in higher-income areas. Some recalcitrant towns have presented challenges, but in Dallas, a housing committee on the city council has been working on a plan to expand affordable housing units throughout the city, as part of a major effort to write the city’s first-ever housing policy. The Dallas Morning News editorial board recently praised these efforts to create more mixed-income neighborhoods, saying this carries “the potential to make Dallas a more equitable city for all of its residents.” The committee’s proposals should head to the full city council as soon as next month.

Ultimately, to achieve fair housing, Yentel says we’ll need greater investment in programs like the National Housing Trust Fund and Section 8 vouchers, in order to expand access to affordable housing, while also revitalizing distressed areas. “Realizing fair housing means providing low-income people with genuine choices about where to live,” she says. “And that requires that we work towards making every community one of opportunity.”