Congress is back in session this week after the long summer recess, with little time left to pass a continuing resolution to keep the federal government funded. This situation was created by both Houses of Congress’ continued inability to move the appropriations process through “regular” order. I use quotes here ironically as in recent years neither party has been able to achieve this when they have been in leadership. This process makes funding decisions based on needs, best practices or outcome measurements virtually impossible. It also limits the ability of authorizing committees to craft new legislation, because funding fights consume energy while magnifying uncertainty.
At NHC we have spent nearly a decade thinking about how to change the political prioritization of affordable housing and community development. One of the common mistakes of this work is to assume that focus group-tested messaging will solve all of ourproblems. While this kind of research can be effective at helping us understand negative frames, we have to recognize that without both education and reform many communities will continue to be frustrated by our solutions.
Recently I had a chance to speak at a gathering of state community development associations, hosted by the National Alliance of Community Economic Development Associations in Cleveland. While I was there to talk about NHC’s communications work, the conversation spurred comments from audience members that while the public is very concerned about housing affordability and wants the government to do more, they also do not like or trust our solutions. One of the comments that struck me as a real and vital concern for the housing and community development field to address was, “What if we designed affordable housing and community development delivery systems that could respond nimbly to the needs of our communities?”
What would this mean? For starters, in small and rural and communities, programmatic changes are needed to offer smaller multifamily development options in places where some residents feel 40-45 unit developments are too big for the scale of their neighborhoods.
HUD has done a lot of great work over the past eight years to connect its work to that of other federal agencies. How can that be expanded more significantly? It is still not easy to respond to community development needs from a single- or multifamily housing and services perspective, much less from a more comprehensive lens that includes housing, health, transportation and education.
In addition to our communications work, NHC has also spent time over the past decade researching best practices at the intersection of these cross-sector issues. We know that access to quality affordable housing is a key determinant of health, has a big impact on education performance and is made even more valuable when connected by public transportation modes to employment centers.
How can housing, education, health and transportation funding streams and planning requirements be better linked and integrated?
There is obviously some logic to separate federal departments that allow expertise to coalesce, but agencies should still be incentivized to work together much more seamlessly. Past efforts on housing and transportation, veterans homelessness, and more show that this can work. Communities don’t and can’t benefit from to single-issue solutions whether they are recovering from disinvestment and population loss or from rapid growth, price escalation and displacement.
Congress needs to find a way to budget based on facts about community needs and the benefits of comprehensive development strategies. There is no doubt in my mind that while efficiency can be improved, at the end of the day, only with more funding can this country’s affordable housing and community development sectors turn the tide on community needs.
That being said, we will also never get where we need to be if we cannot improve the way different federal programs can be combined and designed to meet the needs of different communities across the country. If we are to build any momentum with the new Congress and presidential administration, our sectors must come together on comprehensive solutions while also making the case for more investment.?