Draft Legislation Suggests Trump Administration Weighing Work Requirements And Rent Increases for Subsidized Housing

Originally published in The Intercept on February 1, co-authored with Zaid Jilani.
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Draft legislation obtained by The Intercept suggests the Department of Housing and Urban Development is eyeing a proposal to overhaul the federal government’s administration of subsidized housing, through measures such as rent hikes and conditioning aid on employment.

This change would significantly impact those who rely on public housing and housing choice vouchers, often referred to as Section 8 in reference to Section 8 of the Housing Act. The news comes just weeks after the Trump administration announced that states could start imposing work requirements as a condition of Medicaid eligibility.

When asked about the document, Department of Housing and Urban Development spokesperson Brian Sullivan would not confirm its existence, but he suggested more would become clear when the Trump administration announces its budget later in February. “I think what you’re talking about is going to be expressed publicly in the budget coming up, so prior to that we would have nothing to say,” Sullivan said. He did not return multiple requests for further comment.

Document metadata reveals the name of the author of the document; she is listed as an HUD employee on a number of department web pages between 2013 and 2017.

It is unclear at this time whether the draft legislative language, dated January 17, will be proposed as a standalone bill or included within existing legislation. There are many parts of the 28-page document that are vague and even contradictory. However its text strongly suggests the administration is considering rent reform.

Under current regulations, most households that receive federal housing subsidies pay 30 percent of their adjusted income as rent. Adjusted income is a household’s gross income minus money taken out for four mandatory deductions: dependent deductions ($40 per month per dependent), elderly and disabled deductions ($400 per year), a child care deduction, and medical and disability expense deduction. This 30 percent threshold, which has been the standard for most rental programs since 1981, is based on a rule-of-thumb measure that estimates a household can devote 30 percent of its income to housing costs before it becomes “burdened.”

The draft legislation eliminates all four deductions, effectively making the changes most burdensome on households with children, the elderly, or people with medical problems.

If the draft’s proposals are enacted, those families would have to pay the higher of two figures: Either 35 percent of their household’s gross income, or 35 percent of what they earn from working 15 hours a week for four weeks at the federal minimum wage. A comment in the margins of the document notes that the latter would equal $152.25, something housing advocates say is effectively a new minimum rent floor.

Additionally, the draft legislation would allow public housing authorities to impose work requirements of up to 32 hours a week “per adult in the household who is not elderly or a person with disabilities.” According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than half of all recipients who lived in subsidized housing in 2015 were elderly or disabled, and more than a quarter of all households had a working adult.

Diane Yentel, the president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, expressed alarm at the possible changes.

“HUD’s proposals could raise rents on millions of low-income households that receive federal rental assistance, with some of the largest rent increases for families and individuals that have the greatest difficulties affording housing,” Yentel said. “By raising rents on some of the lowest income and most vulnerable families in HUD subsidized housing, HUD would jeopardize family stability by increasing the financial burdens they face through higher rents.”

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Steve Bannon Tried to Recruit Teachers Union to Trump’s Agenda While in White House

Originally published in The Intercept with Ryan Grim on November 1, 2017.
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American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten met one-on-one with then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon back in March, following the announcement of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts and plan to craft a $1 trillion infrastructure package. The Intercept learned of the meeting, which has not been previously reported, independent of Weingarten or Bannon. It was instigated through a mutual friend and appeared to be part of Bannon’s effort to realign the parties, according to Weingarten.

“Look, I will meet with virtually anyone to make our case, and particularly in that moment, I was very, very concerned about the budget that would decimate public education,” Weingarten said. “I wanted it to be a real meeting, I didn’t want it to be a photo-op, so I insisted that the meeting didn’t happen at the White House.”

Weingarten didn’t take notes at the meeting, which was held at a Washington restaurant, but told The Intercept she and Bannon talked about “education, infrastructure, immigrants, bigotry and hate, budget cuts … [and] about a lot of different things.”

She came away a bit shook. “I came out of that conversation saying that this was a formidable adversary,” she said.

He was looking, Weingarten said, for some common ground that could assist him in realigning the two parties, his long-term goal in politics.“I think he sees the world as working people versus elites. And on some level, he’s thought about educators as working-class folks. But what he doesn’t do is think about the other side of educators, as people who fiercely believe in equality and inclusion. It isn’t an either/or philosophy. The [Martin Luther] King philosophy of jobs and justice is not the Bannon philosophy, let’s put it that way,” she said. “He’s trying to figure out where the friction is, and how to change the alignment. I think that’s really what he was trying to do.”

Hearing Bannon attack elites, including the types of hedge fund Democrats who fund the charter school movement, in the same way she would, was surreal. “He hates crony capitalism,” Weingarten said. “The same kinds of things [we say], you could hear out of his mouth, and that’s why it’s so — you sit there in a surreal way, saying, ‘How can you sit right next to all these elites?’”

Since the election, Weingarten has emerged as one of the most vocal leaders within Democratic circles to resist Trump’s agenda – regularly speaking out against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, deportation threats, budget cuts, and attacks on the Affordable Care Act. She was one of the first Hillary Clinton allies to endorse the Bernie Sanders-backed Keith Ellison in his race for chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Less than two weeks after the election, Weingarten and Maureen Costello of the Southern Poverty Law Center sent an open letter to the president-elect, signed by 100 other organizations, calling on him to forcefully denounce hate. “While you spoke against bullying, intimidation and hate crimes in your ‘60 Minutes’ interview, the appointment of ‘alt-right’ hero Steve Bannon as your chief strategist — which has been cheered by the Ku Klux Klan, the American Renaissance and other white supremacist groups — sends the exact opposite message,” they wrote.

Bannon’s embrace of the “alt-right” movement has at once propelled his rise and put a ceiling on it. It took him from obscurity to the White House and now to the head of a rebel conservative movement. But his ability to realign the parties is hampered by those more noxious elements of his coalition. It was reportedly Bannon, for instance, who urged Trump to not condemn white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, even after one of them allegedly killed a counterprotester with his car. That makes Bannon’s hunt for allies among labor unions and within the black and brown working class that much harder.

“This is one smart guy,” Weingarten said, “but I was pretty clear with him about my criticism of the white nationalism philosophy.” For Weingarten, who is Jewish and a lesbian, Bannon’s “alt-right” politics are more than an abstract threat. Indeed, in a typical White House, a labor leader would not ask to have a meeting outside the White House and then say nothing about it for six months.

In August, just days before he was fired (or resigned) from Trump’s administration, Bannon called Robert Kuttner, co-editor of liberal magazine American Prospect, to talk about a range of issues, including trade and identity politics. Kuttner published a summary of their conversation, remarking that he left “with a sense both of [Bannon’s] savvy and his recklessness.”

Weingarten came away with the same impression: “Let me say it this way: Kuttner’s download about their meeting was not surprising to me in the least.”

At the time of the meeting, the Trump administration had proposed slashing the federal education budget by 13.5 percent, a figure that would amount to more than $9 billion in cuts. The White House also proposedcutting Medicaid by $800 billion, threatening school districts with fundingthey use to provide health and special education services.

“I saw that meeting as my doing my job of trying to find a way to convey, in any way I could, that the public and even his voters had fierce opposition to the education cuts,” she said, adding that she told Bannon their polling showed half of Trump’s voters opposed his cuts.

Bannon, meanwhile, was working hard to build a coalition to push through an infrastructure deal, as well as drive a wedge through organized labor’s longstanding support for the Democratic Party. In January, just three days after Trump’s inauguration, Trump invited five union leaders to the White House to discuss trade and infrastructure spending. Earlier that same day, Trump formally withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in an executive order that drew praise from the union leaders he was hosting. Both Teamsters President Jim Hoffa and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who were not at the meeting, also released statements applauding Trump’s move.

The AFT is a key affiliate member of the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the country, and the White House may have recognized that Weingarten could present problems for their economic agenda. On March 13, three days before the administration’s proposed budget cuts were announced, Axios published a piece describing how the teachers union leader could complicate Trump’s infrastructure plans, because the AFT has sizable pension investments wrapped up in private equity, and the White House was hoping to leverage private equity to help fund the infrastructure package. “Weingarten doesn’t control the pension money but she’s got a substantial bully pulpit,” the Axios article said, adding that she “also holds a lot of political sway at the local and state levels, which matters because more infrastructure spending is currently financed via the municipal bond market.”

The AFT was the first labor union to endorse Clinton in the 2016 election, months earlier than other unions, including the National Education Association. The AFT represents 1.7 million teachers, paraprofessionals, higher education faculty, and health care workers, among others.

Weingarten said she ultimately viewed the encounter as an opportunity to make her case for public education. “If you are the president of the union and you’re fighting fiercely to get budget restorations and to not have a dismantlement of public education or of higher education and the administration asks to – or it’s made clear to you that they want to meet – you meet,” she said. “You don’t not meet. You meet.”

In addition to the open letter sent to the Trump in November 2016, Weingarten sent another letter to the White House — which has not been previously reported — this past July. In it, she emphatically lays out the AFT’s concerns about how the president’s budget plans would impact schools, writing that she hopes Trump “can find time to discuss these issues” with her, as well as ways to strengthen public education.

Weingarten told The Intercept this meeting with Trump has not happened. Bannon declined to comment on the meeting.

Betsy DeVos Alarms Special Education Advocates, Parents

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 18, 2017.
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At an hour when most parents were headed home for the evening, education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos sat down to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The unusual evening hearing raised a number of red flags before it even began: Five Republicans on the committee together had received more than $250,000 in campaign donations from the billionaire Republican donor and her family, and the Office of Government and Ethics still had not signed off on DeVos’s financial disclosures.

So perhaps it was not surprising that the roughly three-hour hearing included several bizarre episodes. DeVos cited grizzly bears as a justification for states determining whether firearms should be allowed in schools. The nominee also insisted that student debt rose 980 percent since 2008, when it only rose 124 percent. But the most shocking moment unfolded when DeVos admitted “she may have been confused” about the 42-year-old Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), one of the nation’s most fundamental civil rights laws.

Enacted in 1975, IDEA provides nearly seven million children in the U.S. with special education services. Special education oversight is one of the most significant responsibilities of the education department that DeVos has been nominated to lead. “The fact that she doesn’t understand the basics about federal education law is just appalling,” says Denise Marshall, the executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), a national organization that defends the legal and civil rights of students with disabilities. “It was pretty clear to us that she is not, and never has been, an advocate for students with disabilities.”

“Even around vouchers, which she supposedly does have a lot of experience with, she just talked about them writ large, as if they could solve every family’s dilemma,” Marshall adds. “She gave no indication that she understands that students with disabilities very often have to give up their legal and civil rights to use vouchers.”

One of DeVos’s most stunning blunders came when she challenged the very notion of federal disability mandates, suggesting that it’s best for individual states to decide how to educate students with special needs. “That would turn back the clock by 40 years,” Marshall says. “IDEA was passed out of the recognition that students with disabilities are a group that requires greater protections. If states want to receive those federal funds, then they have to accept higher responsibilities, and provide those necessary supports.”

Thena Robinson Mock, director of the Opportunity to Learn Program at Advancement Project, a national civil rights group, says that an education secretary nominee who does not understand how IDEA benefits children of color is especially alarming. “If we know nothing else about the school-to-prison pipeline, we know that black and brown students with disabilities are the most vulnerable to punitive discipline policies that push them out of school and into the criminal-justice system,” she says. “These students still need the protections of IDEA because they are more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions, more likely to be referred to law enforcement and more likely to be arrested in school.”

Parents of students with disabilities also had strong reservations about DeVos’s performance, saying that her lack of rudimentary knowledge and experience should disqualify her from the position.

Dustin Park, who lives in Tennessee with his six-year-old diagnosed with Downs syndrome, told The American Prospect that DeVos’s testimony troubled him. “At best, she doesn’t know about the laws protecting students with disabilities, and at worst she doesn’t care,” he says. Park has been organizing and educating other parents about state and federal special education laws and noted that the Supreme Court heard a case just last week that will have massive implications for students with disabilities across the United States.

David Perry, a parent living in Chicago with a disabled child could not understand why a nominee did not have a good answer for such a softball question. “It’s either ignorance, or arrogance, or apathy,” he says. “Either way, I’m even more concerned about her nomination.”

Edward Fuller, a Penn State University education policy professor, told The American Prospect about his experience living in Texas, where his daughter, Jade, diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and ADHD, had been routinely denied special education services. In 2016, The Houston Chronicle reported that Texas had arbitrarily decided that only a certain percentage of students would get special education, while denying thousands of other children their lawful services. The newspaper’s investigation has since prompted federal intervention.

“The debacle in Texas is a perfect example of what could happen if states are allowed control over special education and are allowed to interpret the laws around IDEA from their own perspective,” says Fuller. “States can adopt policies that leave huge swaths of kids without access to a free and appropriate education [and] many southern states would adopt the same strategy as Texas in order to reduce education spending.”

Tom Wellborn, a south Jersey parent of two children with special needs, says he can’t imagine how miserably his kids would be doing without the techniques they’ve learned from specialists in their schools. “DeVos is obviously unqualified; painfully so,” he says. Citing the grizzly bear comment, Wellborn says he can’t even fathom “whether she’s serious or thinks we’re all idiots.”

Freshman Senator Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat, and a parent of a son with cerebral palsy, challenged DeVos last night on the federal disability statute. In a statement provided to The American Prospect, Hassan said, “The fact that a nominee to lead the Department of Education seemed unfamiliar with the federal law to protect students with disabilities—a law that she would have a major responsibility in enforcing—is unacceptable. I will review Mrs. DeVos’s written responses but at this point she has done nothing to convince me that she’s a suitable choice to serve as secretary of education.”

Larry Hogan Can Be Beat

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 5, 2016.
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When Labor Secretary Tom Perez announced in mid-December that he was jumping into the race for Democratic National Committee chair, analysts immediately began to speculate what his motivations could be for challenging Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison. Ellison had already been in the race for a month, and had received diverse endorsements from the AFL-CIO, Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Schumer, among many others. Was the White House putting Perez up to this, nervous about a key Sanders supporter leading the party? Was this about preserving support from billionaire donors like Haim Saban, who said electing Ellison would be a “disaster” for Democrats?

And, wait, wasn’t Perez—a former Maryland state official and a longtime resident of the D.C. suburbs—considering a 2018 run against Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan? Wouldn’t this rising political star’s career be better served by making a blue state blue again?

Last month, when I started asking people around D.C. this question, I got two somewhat contradictory responses. First, I’d invariably be asked if I had seen Larry Hogan’s approval ratings. Yes, I knew that the Republican governor currently boasted a 71 percent approval—his popularity was something The Washington Postreminded readers of again and again. But when I’d ask them what they thought Hogan’s biggest accomplishments were, their responses would quickly become vague. “Look … he can’t be beat,” they’d insist. “He’s moderate and just too well-liked.”

While I’d never claim that unseating an incumbent governor with high polling would be easy, Hogan’s alleged inevitability needs a reality check. Maryland is a state where Hillary Clinton swept the floor by 26 points. It’s a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two-to-one. Let’s be clear: Larry Hogan can be beat.

Hogan won the governorship in 2014 under uniquely favorable circumstances. His six-point victory was facilitated in part by Democrats taking the race for granted: They waged a pitifully weak campaign effort for an uninspiring and often invisible candidate. The result was a precipitous decrease in statewide voter turnout, particularly in counties that are critical for Democratic wins. Baltimore City turned out 36 percent of voters in 2014, 9 percent fewer than in 2010. Likewise, in Prince George’s County, turnout dropped by 7 percent, and in Montgomery County, by 12 percent.

There’s good reason to suspect the 2018 campaign season will not much resemble the generally muted 2014 contest. For starters, there’s a man named Donald Trump who’s set to take over the White House later this month. He’ll be starting his presidency with a stunningly low approval rating, and the 2018 midterms will be the first opportunity Americans generally, and Democrats particularly, will have to express their displeasure at the ballot box. What’s more, with the federal government under GOP control, Democrats will be focusing more on winning state governments than they have in the recent past. Thirty-six gubernatorial seats up are for grabs in 2018, and as political writer Greg Sargent pointed out, many states in which Republicans are defending governorships are ones that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton recently won.

Larry Hogan might be a moderate Republican, but he’s still a Republican. That means progressives have an opportunity to link his Maryland agenda to Trump’s national program—and whatever chaos it’s likely to cause. Hogan himself has described Chris Christie and Vice President-elect Mike Pence as his “closest friends” among governors. Yes, Hogan said he would not vote for Trump—a shrewd political calculation that resonated with his liberal state (Massachusetts’s GOP Governor Charlie Baker did the same thing)—but Hogan has hardly been denouncing Trump, either. On the contrary, Hogan congratulated him on his win, and made clear the president-elect would be welcome in Maryland. A few weeks after the election Hogan even said, “Everyone ought to just take a deep breath and give the new administration a chance.”

If anything, Hogan is more vulnerable to an anti-Trump backlash than the far-right, Trumpist wing of his party. The hard core of GOP elected officials usually represent safe red districts. However popular he may be, Hogan is trying to keep his balance in a state that tilts far to the left.

Hogan recognizes his political vulnerability. Clinton and newly elected Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen both performed well in Maryland this past November, including in suburban counties that Hogan won in 2014. And as Maryland progressives move on from their post Trump-election shock, they’re going to be mounting a more concerted effort to define what Hogan really stands for.

And that gets to another important, overlooked reason Hogan can be beat: His record is deeply hostile to liberal values.

Let’s start with the environment. While just this week Hogan’s team released a statement positioning the governor as a champion of green energy and sustainability, his substantive policy positions paint a very different picture. During Hogan’s first week in office he blocked a series of environmental regulations, including a rule setting standards for air pollution at the state’s coal-fired power plants, and another restricting phosphorus pollution from farms near the Chesapeake Bay. This past summer the executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters co-published a Baltimore Sun op-ed detailing how Hogan has fought against major environmental reforms, including his veto of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, a bill that passed the state legislature and was supported by 71 percent of Maryland voters.

“Most harmful, though, has been the way Mr. Hogan has confused the public about his overall battle plans,” the environmental activists wrote. “In April, with a grand ceremony in Annapolis, the governor signed the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, mandating a 40 percent reduction in statewide carbon pollution by 2030. But Mr. Hogan is careful to point out that the bill has no specific mandates as to how to achieve the goal. So the governor has taken enormous and undeserved environmental credit for signing a bold target on paper while actively obliterating every major policy realm in the state dedicated to actual climate pollution reductions.”

On transportation, Hogan has similarly faked left while moving right.

“He cancelled the Red Line [a $2.9 billion light rail project in Baltimore that had been in the works since 2002], crippled the Purple Line [a light rail project running through the D.C. suburbs], he sidelined reform for the Maryland Transit Administration and the Bus Network Improvement Program,” says Martha McKenna, a Democratic political strategist. “He hasn’t done anything to help people get to work. He’s really failed and now he’s trying to get the media to cover him like he’s been a transit champion.”

“Like Donald Trump, Governor Hogan is a master of political theater that communicates only the message he wants to convey,” adds Brooke Lierman, a Maryland state delegate who champions transit reform. “He can zing off one-liners like ‘road kill bill’ that mask the actual facts of the policy he is discussing. Democrats—myself included—struggle sometimes to effectively convey our policies in ways that resonate with voters.”

If Democrats can learn how to combat Hogan’s PR smokescreen in the coming years, they can expose a governor with an agenda deeply at odds with the state’s electorate.

On the issue of public education, Hogan hasn’t bothered to conceal his true aims. In addition to cutting funding for public schools and lengthening summer vacation—a move that will disproportionately hurt low-income students—Hogan wants to increase funding for private school vouchers and significantly expand charter schools throughout the state. And though under Maryland state law all charter teachers are unionized, Hogan backed an effort in 2015 to change that.

Another reason Hogan’s record has flown under the radar is because the state has been preoccupied with the governor’s battle with cancer. Hogan spent a year-and-a-half of his tenure undergoing chemotherapy, garnering understandable bipartisan sympathy and softening criticisms. He’s also assembled a sophisticated communications team, and benefited from a massively thinned out press corps. All of which have helped divert attention from the big tax breaks he crafted for Northrop Grumman and Marriott International, and the cancellation of another billion-dollar economic revitalization project in Baltimore.

Given the paucity of Maryland media coverage, it will up to Democrats and activists to get the word out about what Hogan is really up to. But holding Hogan accountable to his record is only part of the solution. Another challenge will be prodding suburban liberals to vote in accord with their progressive values. Lily Geismer, a Claremont McKenna historian who writes extensively about suburban voters and shifts within the Democratic Party, has examined the phenomenon of blue states with Republican governors. She says voters in Democratic strongholds like Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland tend to think if they elect moderate conservatives from business-oriented backgrounds, they’ll somehow be opting for efficient, fiscally responsible state management, while still holding true to their liberal commitments. The lure of a federal-state split ticket may be even stronger for suburbanites who spend all day working in the nation’s capital.

“Being so close to D.C. is a blessing and curse,” says Lierman. “Maryland is home to a plethora of brilliant and engaged policy wonks, cabinet secretaries, and federal workers. But by and large they are concerned with federal policy and national politics—not state and local government.” To regain power, Democrats need to remember the importance of local governance; opposition to right-wing policies in Washington matters less if those same policies are simply recreated in statehouses.

Larry Hogan can be beaten in 2018. Exposed as a right-winger, stripped of a favorable national political environment, and facing a reinvigorated Democratic opposition, Hogan’s veneer of inevitability wouldn’t last long.

Which is just one reason why a sharp Democratic leader looking to move on to the national stage might want to take a hard look at the Old Line State and its supposedly invulnerable governor.