Old debates and familiar themes dominated the discussion at last week’s housing hearing in the House Financial Services Committee. In a hearing occasioned by HUD’s 50th anniversary, the committee convened for “The Future of Housing in America: Federal Housing Reforms that Create Housing Opportunity.” Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) opened the hearing by saying that our collective goal cannot be limited to helping people tolerate poverty, it must be to help them escape poverty. Hensarling argued that HUD has failed to measurably meet the goal of eradicating poverty set out by Lyndon B. Johnson 50 years ago at the inception of the department. Witnesses and others members of the committee argued that his view misses the accomplishments of HUD in a period with many countervailing forces; housing is a crucial element to exiting poverty, but it is not the sole element.
The witnesses for the majority were Mr. Orlando J. Cabrera, of counsel at Squire Paton Boggs; Ms. Renee Glover, founder and managing member at The Catalyst Group, LLC; and Mr. Howard Husock, vice president of research and publications at the Manhattan Institute. The witness for the minority was Dr. Xavier Briggs, vice president of economic opportunity and assets at The Ford Foundation. Mr. Cabrera’s testimony called for the enhanced use of information technology to measure results from HUD. Ms. Glover argued that poverty is not static, but rather a function of what happens in the larger economy, especially the negative impact of the Great Recession. Mr. Husock argued that HUD disincentivizes work by tying rent to income, such that if one’s income goes up, one’s rent goes up; Husock proposed implementing income tiers for more gradual rent increases. Finally, Dr. Briggs outlined the history of HUD’s changing goals and how those goals have failed to address the structural gap between incomes and housing costs. The witnesses’ full testimony and a recording of the hearing are available here.
Perhaps the least useful portion of the hearing and the most returned-to theme was work requirements for recipients of housing assistance. Discussion on both sides of the aisle often missed the basic point that housing assistance addresses a wide variety of need, and it does so in different ways. Housing assistance provides:
- Temporary help to households suffering job loss, medical emergency, natural disaster or other disruption.
- Long-term assistance to elderly or disabled recipients.
- Offset to housing costs in places where demand far outstrips supply.
- A platform for counseling, job training, medical assistance, financial empowerment and other services aimed toward empowering people through greater self-sufficiency and dignity.
Work requirements interact very differently with these different aspects of housing assistance, often in counter-productive ways, such as deterring needy households from seeking assistance or creating additional administrative burdens.
The discussion in the hearing centered on the topic of the Moving to Work program and work requirements more generally, Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) pointedly asked the panel: “Are the poor lazy?” He then presented the following chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Most Rental Assistance Recipients Work Are Elderly, or Have Disabilities report arguing that a work requirement is not necessary.
The report highlights that nearly three quarters of HUD-assisted, non-elderly or –disabled people worked or participated in another program with a work requirement. For the remainder, barriers to work such as lack of child care and education loom large.
When Congressmen Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Andy Barr (R-Ky.) asked the panel if they would support mandatory work requirements, not one panel member said they would unconditionally support it. Dr. Briggs pointed out that the U.S. has a history of imposing requirements without the necessary supports to achieve the stated goal. Dr. Briggs said he might support a work requirement only if the program came with childcare, intensive work training and education investments. Mr. Husock said that he believes that employment should not be a precondition to someone being housed.
In the end, very little of the debate in the hearing fulfilled the promise of looking to the future. Rather, it was a rehash of very old themes that missed vital innovations happening in community development, family self-sufficiency assistance, ending homelessness and creating inclusive communities where everyone can afford to live near where they work, study and build their lives.