Comment On the Draft "Policy Recommendations to Support Gulf Coast Housing Recovery&q
by sam jackson and stephanie mingo
Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009 at 9:14 PM
This article is a critique of a draft proposal by five progressive non-profits providing policy recommendations to the U.S. Congress concerning the promotion of affordable housing in the storm devastated areas of the Gulf Coast. This analysis is the collective work of New Orleans housing activists who have been fighting for affordable housing in the city since Katrina and longer. The main criticism of this analysis is that the proposal of the five non-profits, in general, represents a continuation of the failed private sector driven approach to rebuilding the Gulf Coast begun in 2005 under the direction of the Bush Administration.
Comments On the Draft “Policy Recommendations to Support Gulf Coast Housing Recovery”
A New Orleans Perspective
May Day New Orleans & Survivor's Village
Five national and international organizations, the Equity and Inclusion Campaign, Amnesty International USA, National Low Income Housing Coalition, Oxfam America, and PolicyLink have laid out a set of policy proposals and plan to submit them to the Obama administration and 111th Congress. The draft document as it now stands – entitled “Policy Recommendations to Support Gulf Coast Housing Recovery” and hereafter referred to as Policy Recommendations – makes some excellent recommendations which we believe could be of assistance to ongoing recovery efforts in the Gulf South.
However, many more of the policy recommendations contained in this document fall far short of what is needed to implement a just and full recovery after four deeply flawed years of the Bush administration. Below we identify several systematic flaws in the overall policy vision of this document, all grounded in economic and social philosophies not too different from those that guided the Bush administration's failed efforts. We also make a number of specific critiques and policy recommendations of our own which we find absolutely essential to rebuilding our communities. We hope this is taken as a constructive if serious critique of the draft document and overall plans of the Equity and Inclusion Campaign. We wish to see major changes in the final plan that will be submitted to members of Congress, the White House and executive Departments.
One of the over-arching causes of the ongoing crisis of survival precipitated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita is the economic and political philosophy that guided the federal government's response. These underlying assumptions were by no means limited to the Bush administration and Republican Congress, however. Far too many city and state officials, members of the Democratic Party, and even NGOs have been equally culpable in promoting this framework for recovery: privatized and market-based policies, with a gross bias toward property owners.
We feel that a radical shift is necessary, away from approaches that seek to stimulate private construction of privately owned housing stock with public subsidies, and instead toward public works projects, public housing, public schools, and other public goods. Policy Recommendations utterly fails to recommend any federal, state, or locally initiated public projects. Instead it hews as close as possible to the same general frame of thinking that has guided the previous four years of failed recovery. Nearly all recommendations emphasize the utilization of tax credits, HUD subsidies, individual and community development block grants, and vouchers. These are merely extensions of the neoliberal philosophy which has proven incapable of guiding a just and sustainable rebuilding process. These sorts of policies do more to benefit private interests than promote the commonweal. We recommend that this whole document be reexamined in terms of its underlying assumptions, and that the a guiding framework that envisions using public tax dollars to build public goods, including housing, be adopted.
Another systematic flaw in the Policy Recommendations document concerns its inattention to the federal-local dynamic with respect to the US South. Historically the political leadership of the US South has been able to maintain enormous degrees of social and economic inequality by using federal interventions to their interest, or by thwarting federal interventions that could undermine their power. Irregardless of the obvious change which has come to America, this overall dynamic continues. African Americans have been especially vulnerable to these manipulations of the federal-state relationship by local elites. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the past four years of failed recovery have proven the rule.
Policy Recommendations tacitly acknowledges this problematic dynamic and seems to take it into account in several instances. For example, the recommendation that HUD “conduct a comprehensive review of meeting housing needs of low and moderate income victims of the storms and redirect funds to unmet needs or rescind waivers that diverted funds from these needs immediately” strikes directly at the means by which Mississippi's political leadership used hundreds of millions intended for housing and instead invested it in port facilities. Section III's recommendation to “examine the effectiveness of CDBG as a vehicle to deliver large-scale equitable disaster recovery” is one of this document's best recommendations and we whole-heartedly endorse it.
However, this observance of the federal-local relationship is contradicted in other sections. Again, related to the first systematic flaw, the overall emphasis on a suite of private, market based approaches plays right into the hands of state and city political leaders and the major business powers in the Gulf South, many of whom will use these resources as leverage to displace working class communities, rebuild a durable-structural inequality based foremost in housing, and divert funds into those projects which benefit them the greatest, not what is in the larger community's best interests. Any policy recommendations made need to be seriously thought through in light of this ongoing dynamic. Mechanisms must be built in to ensure that local power brokers, be they politicians, business leaders, and large NGOs do not monopolize and abuse federal resources nor deny the availability of these resources for those communities most in need.
Finally, why does this document aim so low? Why do the authoring organizations ask for so little so late? Why fall into the trap of the politics of the possible (vulgar “pragmatism”) instead of aiming for what's right and just? We should assume that politicians will be practical and make compromises. Those of us working for justice, however, should push as far as we can for those policies which we know are right and which in the long run will break the back of the racial, gender, class-based forms of oppression rooted in housing inequality.
The proposals for Congress in Policy Recommendations not only fall short of what's needed but are also weighted improperly to benefit of property owners and real estate developers, not renters and working families.
Irregardless of its bi-partisan support, the Gulf Coast Multifamily and Assisted Housing Recovery Act is at best only an interim and partial piece of what's needed to secure housing for the elderly and persons with disabilities. The Section 202 program is a subsidy; “interest-free capital advances to private, nonprofit sponsors” intended to spur development and financing of housing for the elderly. Similarly the Section 811 program provides funding for the development of rental housing by 501(c)(3) organizations and also funds project rental assistance. As we mentioned above, programs designed to promote market-led solutions have so far failed the Gulf Coast. Why do we expect an additional $200 million for these same kinds of programs to create affordable housing for vulnerable populations, especially now in the context of the wider financial crisis? With respect to the 811 program, the destruction of public housing in New Orleans relegates its project rental assistance clause as mostly garnish rather than substance. It's clear how $200 million might benefit non-profit and private developers and landlords if they choose to utilize the program, but it's not clear how it will benefit vulnerable populations who need housing immediately. It's also not clear that this will lead to the immediate construction or renovation of housing stock rather than a slow and incomplete utilization of available funds.
Extending and providing additional Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) are decent proposals, but again, they can only be seen as partial and interim solutions to the housing crisis in the Gulf South. It is clear how these tax credits will benefit some real estate developers and real estate managers who take advantage of these incentives, but it is not clear that they will immediately benefit working families who need housing now. Why are we designing recovery efforts to cater to the whims of private real estate developers? Why are we not proposing government owned, built, managed housing, or, why not use government funds to build affordable housing which can be sold directly to families with long-term low-interest loans? Why must every phase of the recovery effort be designed to enrich business interests, major landowners, corporate banks and major NGOs? This is precisely what LIHTCs are designed to do.
Filling the gaps for homeowner repair and rebuilding grants is an excellent and necessary recommendation. Again, however, this and the previous two recommendations (the first three made under the Congressional heading in Policy Recommendations) are all focused on homeowners, real estate developers, and major property owners. These are subsidies for those who already possess a significant amount of capital, not the working classes who are in most need of housing. Each does very little to benefit renters. This is especially shocking because the majority of New Orleanians prior to Katrina rented. Renters remain a majority in the city. Many millions more are renters across the Gulf Coast, and unfortunately, no mixture of tax credits or grants will make them homeowners anytime soon.
No matter what our opinions are one the benefits of home ownership, the Katrina disaster should not be seen as an opportunity to create equity among working class families. Rather, it should be soberly faced as what it really is: an ongoing crisis of survival and violation of human rights necessitating affordable housing here and now. What is required first and foremost to secure housing justice along the Gulf Coast are programs that will ensure the construction of affordable quality rental units across the region, but especially in major urban markets like New Orleans. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that this is an “opportunity” to rebuild without the deeply entrenched racist problems afflicting rental housing and public housing across the United States. Doing so will only prolong the crisis for survival. It is not at all likely to achieve the desired goal and in fact could prove counterproductive to racial and economic justice.
The recommendation directing HUD to develop replacement plans for all pre-Katrina HUD assisted homes that do not have redevelopment resources is totally inadequate, vague, and could be interpreted to mean a number of things, the most likely of which will not create affordable housing in New Orleans. Rather than explain what is wrong with the 3 sentences in this section (we are shocked there are only 3 sentences in this draft and hope that more extensive language exists elsewhere) we offer this recommendation instead, and we strictly limit it to the needs of the community we know most about, New Orleans:
Prevent any further demolitions of public housing in New Orleans for any reason whatsoever. Rehabilitate, reopen, and rent 100% of the remaining public housing stock. Ensure that funding is adequate to bring public housing units up to code. Require HUD and HANO to rebuild all units torn down in the wake of hurricane Katrina ~5000, otherwise known as 1-for-1 replacement. Require that these five thousand plus units be built within the next three years. Expand public housing into neighborhoods and city districts which have traditionally excluded public housing such as the Uptown area around Tulane University and Lakeview. Ensure that jobs in the construction of public housing go to public housing residents and other jobless New Orleanians. Avoid policies that tie the construction of public housing units to market priced units (programs like HOPE VI), or else to other private housing and commercial developments.
Extension of Disaster Vouchers is another good interim policy. In fact, the DHAP program should be extended with no time line. In place of time limits the DHAP program's termination should be linked to a concrete goal of public housing units to be built. Doing so will ensure that affordable housing stock is available and will allow the government itself to bring this housing stock online instead of relying on private or NGO developers. Right now housing authorities are tying the DHAP's termination to the numbers of recipients they can sign up for a different voucher program that is another effort to shunt low-income families into private market housing (the Housing Choice Voucher Program). Moving away from “the market” and using the federal government's powers to meet the housing goal will prevent a contradictory set of policies which has so far impeded recovery efforts: the government has provided vouchers for renters while simultaneously trying to catalyze the private market to rebuild affordable housing. Unfortunately this provides capital with a disincentive to promote the further construction of affordable housing stock as it will decrease the market value of their properties and therefore would reduce and finally nullify the need for government subsidization of rental housing which presently enriches landlords to the detriment of both taxpayers and renters.
The final proposal in Policy Recommendations calls on the federal government to institutionalize partnerships with nonprofit organizations that have invested more effectively than government in community recovery. This is a dangerous recommendation and sounds more like a funding proposal based on self interest of NGOs than on Gulf community interests. It would create further layers of bureaucracy and reduce the transparency with which tax dollars are spent making it more difficult for regular citizens to hold the state accountable and contest abuses of authority. It would put undue amounts of power in the hands of NGOs, many of which are not in fact responsible for community recovery, and some of which (like Catholic Charities) have in fact destroyed affordable public housing in New Orleans.
This recommendation seems to be advocating more of what hasn't work. The lack of government aid was not due to incompetence. NGOs were only more effective than government because there was a willing dereliction on the part of officials at the federal level, and also because the government was all too eager to allow for a private, non-profit led reconstruction. Again, this is the flawed framework of a privatized, market based disaster recovery. This has proven a failure for many reasons, some spelled out above. We adamantly recommend against this proposal.
Policy Recommendations is actually a rather conservative document. We feel that a more visionary set of policies needs to be advocated to the new administration and Congress. Of critical importance is escaping the failed market-based approaches and moving toward public programs of housing finance, construction, and operation. We hope that the final version of Policy Recommendations takes our comments into consideration, and that it emphasizes public works over private incentives in housing recovery along the Gulf Coast.
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