The deficit reduction debate is placing strains on local providers of services funded by the federal government. This is especially true of housing programs like public housing which provide shelter to our nation’s poorest families. The longer the discussion to cut Federal spending the greater the likelihood poor families will have to find a way to pay more of their housing costs. To offset budget loses, local providers are being forced to lay-off staff, reduce services and defer maintenance on units.
To offset these reductions, the structure and funding for public housing need to change in order for it to continue. Public housing has proven to be a vehicle which has provided low-income families with a “decent, safe and affordable home.” Former President Jimmy Carter, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, and comedienne Whoopi Goldberg are among the millions who spent part of their lives growing up in the “projects”.
However, under its current structure public housing cannot survive and meet the challenges of families with head of households with limited skills, decreasing earning power and a sizeable elderly population.
Serious consideration needs to be given to restructure the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). First, its mission needs to be re-evaluated. The department was created in 1965 as part of the Great Society programs founded by President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. It is time to reconsider the department’s role in meeting local needs. As the department approaches 50-years old in 2015, the current budget situation provides an opportune time to look how best to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the department and act accordingly.
Second, federal oversight of housing should have a governing structure modeled after the Federal Reserve Board. Each member of the Board receives a 14-year appointment after going through a vetting process. The chairman is appointed by the president to a four year term. This type of governing structure allows for long-term planning, reduces policy changes which create havoc locally, and minimizes the politics of board appointments. This approach has tremendous political, practical and policy implications and should be carefully thought out. There are many competing forces pulling the department in different directions. A “tenured” HUD secretary can be more effective in bringing these various influences together to work on a sustainable housing agenda.