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...