Was Governor Romney Right Suggesting (Perhaps) that HUD Should Be Eliminated?

Charles Buki's picture

Set aside whether or not you agree with anything Governor Romney has to say about anything.  Set aside whether or not you think it is axiomatic that the people of the United States need a federal agency generally charged with the mission of housing the poor and attending to urban issues.  

Candidate Romney may be doing us a favor by putting HUD on the table for us as an American community to evaluate.  It does not matter if the world that favors the elimination of HUD is largely comprised of what Senator McCain called Tea Party Hobbits; the question as to the merit of keeping HUD or not deserves our attention.

We owe it to ourselves to ask whether or not there is role for the federal government in housing matters.  If not, what kind of settlement will result?  If so, what kind of a role can we support?  If we can support some kind of a role, we must ask, "to what end?"

Should tax dollars be channeled towards the mortgage interest deduction?  If yes, why?  If not, why not?  In either case, what is the arugment for or against tax dollars underwriting the housing costs of those not in the middle class?  Or those who rent?

In the 80 years since the government really began to have a role in housing, much good has come, and much trouble.  Yet rarely is the federal role truly discussed in fundamental enough terms to ask these basic questions.  

If we had a more ingrained habit of self reflection, we might have the maturity to completely eliminate some programs, and create needed new ones.  Instead, our tendency is to morph something possibly appropriate in 1960 for something possibly apropriate in 1970 and tinker with it in perpetuity until it barely resembles anything remotely regonizable, much less verifiably useful.

For the record, I think it is worth everyone's time to seriously ask the following questions:

1) What is essential that HUD does that must continue?  Why?  What makes it critical?

2) Of what is essential, is it also the case that only HUD can do it?  

3) What is either not essential or essential but could be done by another entity?  Of this, why does it is continue to be a HUD effort if either it is not necessary or is better done alternatively?

I would wager that most would agree we need a fair housing enforcement component.  That we also need a housing of last resort component, provided it is temporary and only temporary.  That we need a market triggering component to move weak neighborhoods towards strength when market forces won't; and an equity component to keep high cost markets accessible to working households.  That's three core areas:  fair housing (enforcement), public housing (provision and management), and balanced housing (incentives).  

But I suspect there's a case for none of these, as well as a case for much more.  So I am curious... 



Charles Buki is principal of czb, a Virginia-based neighborhood planning firm specializing in deep dive analysis, strategy development, and implementation of revitalization plans.



A world without HUD...maybe an improvement?

I'm far from an anti-government ideologue, but a few years of working with HUD programs at the local level convinced me that there are quite a few lines of business that the feds should probably drop, provided state and local government can pick up the slack.

Mental health services is another good example of "how many bureaucrats need to fondle the money before it hits the street?" The feds dole out money to the states, which distribute it to counties, which hire nonprofits that.... actually take care of people. A lot of what HUD does follows the same model.

It's not at all obvious that the federal government has any useful role in the provision of housing and community development, and I do think government closer to home is more accountable, more flexible and more efficient. What I'd like to see the US government do across the board in policy areas that are really about local needs is:

1) serve as a clearing house for best practices
2) share the wealth between wealthier areas and poorer ones
3) provide seed funding for truly innovative experiments

You could also argue in some areas the federal government can set and enforce a national "floor" for services and standards (including some critical things like civil rights where not all state and local governments are beyond suspicion even now). I need some convincing that a creature like HUD is well-conceived for that task; how effective do you think its fair housing enforcement has been?

Now, I bet what I just listed above fits pretty much with what HUD sees itself doing right now, but in my experience, Washington DC is just too far away from the reality local officials and professionals deal with. It is very slow to respond, is sclerotic in evolving policy and rules to meet new needs, and isn't accountable in any real sense.

Maybe a very different but more accurate account is that because HUD is responsive to deep and cross-cutting national political pressures, it's completely insensate to the needs of its local partners. Like a brontasaurus, it really can't tell you what's going on down by its toes.

And it carves a big chunk of revenue off the top to "oversee" the work of local folks who understand that work far better than it.

YMMV, but I feel like a determined and savvy group of people can actually affect things for the better at my State House, and at my City Hall. I think shifting the conversation in DC is nearly impossible. And given that, I'd love to lop big chunks of the US government's mission off and turn them over to the states.

I'm very interested in others' perspectives here. Let 'er rip!

Charles Buki's picture

Pretty nicely done!

Pretty nicely done! Thoughtful, for sure. My hunch is there's a big bucket of issues in here. Some rather eternal. Local v non local for example. A national standard v a state determined ruling. Setting aside such constitutional and cultural issues that we may haggle over a century from now, I think the HUD debate does require us to have a national conversation about what is important to us as people when it comes to issues of equity, cost shifting, settlement, scarce resource deployment decision making, and the free rider dilemma. But your analysis prompted me to think of another issue: congressional involvement in HUD matters. Your point that what is needed may be what HUD thinks it is doing is well taken. I suspect beneath that insight is this issue of the many cooks spoiling to soup. Involvement from Congress can wreak havoc with well aimed policy at any agency. One can easily envision really great policy and program concepts emerging from HUD or any other department only to fail the test of Congressional enthusiasm. Case in point would be the tendency to take what might work in LA and force some poor community in West Virginia to use it, and in recognition of that kind of lunacy, resort to nothing more than block grant pabulum.

charles buki is principal of czb, an alexandria, va - based neighborhood planning practice.

Fix HUD, Don't Throw It Out

While HUD may be the most bureaucratic federal agency next to the military, it is a vital component for dealing with the many domestic problems that local and state governments simply refuse to address. I conduct Analyses of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice for a living and must report that far too many municipalities are happy to ignore the devastating issues of continuing racial segregation in housing which generate all sort of costly adverse impacts on society: costly and more frequent public works like rebuilding roads as well as worse air pollution due to commuters who cannot live near their jobs due to discrimination and exclusionary zoning, creation of a permanent Black underclass resulting in more crime, higher welfare costs, and barriers to mobility out of poverty, and so much more.

And they ignore the continuing crisis in affordable housing. Let's face it, the private sector is not going to build housing affordable to households with modest incomes. Without HUD, the affordable housing crisis would be getting much worse than it is.

Generally speaking, few local governments are willing to address these issues. The only progress we're making on these issues is due to HUD's efforts, especially under the Obama administration. Under the Obama administration, HUD is actually requiring compliance with the law that created Community Development Block Grants -- something that even the Clinton HUD didn't do.

I don't pretend there are no problems with the way HUD functions, but without HUD cities and states will continue their march back to the 1950s and the hypersegregation that plagues this nation would be accelerating. Like any business, HUD has some really incredibly competent and effective employees and some real duds. That's life -- every business and government agency has a mix.

And let's not forget that it's a constant battle between local and state government for the dubious distinction of the most incompetent level of government. While the feds have been an easy target for the radical right, the reality is that our federal government operates at a much higher level of competency that the vast majority of local and state governments and a huge segment of the private sector. Consider Medicare spends just 4% on administration compared to the 20 to 40% spent by private health insurance companies (and I can personally attest to the incredible incompetencies at Aetna).

Instead of seeking to end HUD, we should be seeking to reform HUD by minimizing its bureaucracy and allowing HUD to do its job efficiently and effectively.

Daniel Lauber, AICP
AICP President 2003-2005, 1992-1994
APA President 1985-1986

Vouchers are nationally scaled

The largest and fastest-growing program at HUD, in terms of budget, is tenant-based housing assistance. I'm not sure it makes sense to pass a federal voucher program on to fifty different state programs, each with different criteria, rules, bureaucracy, etc. Setting aside the simple administrative efficiency issue, choice is an important feature of the program, which includes the ability to move across state lines. We want people to be encouraged to move in order to pursue their economic interests. Or, at least, we don't want to discourage this.

Facts needed, what about NIMBY's?

Former planning commissioner and former county planner. One of the functions of government is to do what cannot be done by individuals or local government; without Housing Elements, local politicians would not stand up to NIMBY's. Without HUD funding, housing projects would still look like, well, housing projects. HUD requires housing projects to be integrated with communities, near services and jobs. Affordable housing is everyones business; the lack of affordable housing contributes to outsourcing to countries with lower housing costs. If you want jobs then you have to provide entry level housing for entry level workers. American manufacturing thrieved when modest housing was a priority in this country. Your article does not provide the needed contrast between the cost of the mortgage home deduction and HUD's budget. In the 2013 proposed Budget, HUD programs are less than 10% of the cost of mortgage deductions enjoyed by homeowners.

If you want your kids to have jobs when they graduate from college then affordable housing is your business.


Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.
Rome grey gold tie

Tie one on to celebrate your city!

Choose from over 20 styles imprinted with detailed city or transit maps.
 Blockitecture Building Block Set - Garden City Series

Just In! Get the Garden City Expansion

New from Blockitecture! Create towers, cities, and dwellings with this set of architectural building blocks.