I fancy myself a political realist. A person who spends their life working on social justice issues in Texans either tempers their expectations for rapid change or becomes very angry and frustrated.
My expectations for the Obama administration’s housing policy is thus restrained based on my experience.
Nevertheless, I’m cautiously (and perhaps irrationally) hopeful.
On the positive side the groundwork has been laid for replacing the public’s cynicism and fatalism about the ability of government to address social problems with an atmosphere of hope and possibility. The housing crisis has always been a social problem. At its heart it is a problem of poverty and lack of opportunity for the working poor.
A second positive factor is that the economic crisis and the foreclosure disaster has taught the country an important lesson. Trusting the provision of decent, affordable housing for the poor and the near poor solely to unregulated financial markets will not work. Most people now understand there is an essential role for government — both regulatory and programmatic — in ensuring that lower income families have a home.
On the downside, the media and political pundits claim that Obama has already promised to deliver more programs and tax cuts than will be financially possible. Seriously addressing the long ignored affordable housing problem will require substantial financial resources. I have previously written about my dismay that both presidential candidates focused exclusively on promises to the middle class to the exclusion of the poor. President-elect Obama’s campaign has not emphasized a commitment to funding these social needs, yet I take hope in the fact that his political party’s platform has made these commitments.
The new administration must make adequate funds available to tackle the unmet housing needs of the poorest Americans through the National Housing Trust Fund. In addition, here are four broad initiatives that I hope the administration will take on.
First, I hope that this administration can successfully call upon a national commitment to individual and public action to achieve a realistic reduction in the number of people living in poverty. This will require both a fiscal and a moral commitment on the part of individuals and all levels of government. It is both fiscally prudent and possible to cut the number of people in poverty in this country in half over four years. It was done before by Lyndon Johnson between 1964 and 1968. I do not suggest that we need to follow precisely the Johnson model, yet the Johnson administration’s record shows what can be accomplished.
Second, this administration needs to make the promise of fair housing a reality. The growing problems of racial and economic segregation in this country are critical unfinished business left over from the civil rights movement. In this moment of unprecedented racial progress in political affairs we are offered a unique opportunity to tackle this debilitating racial problem.
Third, I hope that this administration will use its unique position to empower low income people, poor people, and low income communities to play a leadership role to improving and rebuilding housing and neighborhoods. It is clear that these problems cannot be solved without both public and private financial resources and the support of the country as a whole. But it is equally evident that the problems of the poor will require both initiative and leadership from the poor themselves to be successfully addressed.
We as a nation experimented briefly with empowering the poor in the 1960s with the short-lived concept of “maximum feasible participation” of the poor in the programs of the Great Society and again in the early days of the community development movement in the 1970s. But we gave up and institutionalized anti-poverty programs in bureaucracies controlled by political elites and the community development movement largely ceased to be community directed and became a professionalized housing delivery social program run by outsiders. We must restore the direct involvement of low income communities and the poor in the anti-poverty and housing movements. No national leader has ever been in a position to speak and be heard by both the country at large and the poor and disadvantaged as President-elect Obama.
Fourth, the new administration must reform the post-disaster housing recovery process as it affects lower income homeowners and renters. The experiences of the recent hurricanes has shown that the current process has completely failed to address the needs of the poor.
So these are my hopes for change:
– a meaningful commitment to attack poverty,
– ending racial and economic segregation,
– sharing responsibility In carrying out housing and community development initiatives with low income people and low income communities, and
– fix the problems with federal disaster recovery programs.
In a time of great change and unprecedented hope even this cynical Texas social activist believes — “Yes we can!”