HUD's proposed changes create hurdles not ladders
In the midst of a Twitter feed alight with stories about police being used to shut black people out of places to eat, drink, exercise, and relax, comes a story about Trump’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) using policy to do the same. The federal government is adding new and significant hurdles to communities of color — particularly black people — being able to access housing.
Reporting earlier this year revealed that HUD is intending to remove from its mission the goal of creating inclusive, discrimination-free communities. It has retreated from pending fair-housing enforcement actions. And it closed April — the month that marks the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act — with a proposal that will harm the families most in need of housing assistance. The so-called “Making Affordable Housing Work Act of 2018” increases rents, enables work requirements, and worsens the prospects for families and communities.
The United States’ federal housing assistance programs are examples — imperfect, to be sure — of policies that help many of the nation’s low-income families stabilize themselves financially, create resilient multi-generational communities, and allow their children a foothold on the economic ladder.
But they also illustrate how programs that help us all can be targeted to begin to repair the damage that discriminatory labor laws, hiring practices, redlining policies, restrictive housing covenants, predatory lending, and other policy decisions and practices have done to black communities. Thus, while 13.3 percent of the general population is black, 28.5 percent of people with housing assistance are.
The proposal, which HUD Secretary Ben Carson has been promoting since April 25th, increases the amount families will have to pay in rent from 30 percent to 35 percent of their income, with the minimum rent being $150 for families earning less than $435 each month. (Elderly, disabled, or other exempted families have a minimum rent of $50).
For a childcare worker with two children, who earns $1000 a month, rent will go from $300 to $350. Her income will not rise and her expenses will not fall. In fact, if one or both of that worker’s children are in childcare or if her family has significant medical costs, the jump in her rent will be even greater. Currently, childcare and medical costs are deducted from income in order to determine rent; but under the Trump administration proposal, they will not be.
The new legislation also proposes enabling public housing agencies or private property owners participating in project-based assistance programs, such as Section 8, to implement work requirements for most families. These requirements are paternalistic penalties on people for being lower income. The obligation for renting any housing is paying rent. People on housing assistance must meet this basic contractual obligation.
And yet, too often, their counter-parties are property owners and managers who are not meeting their contractual obligation to provide healthy, safe, and habitable spaces. Instead, tenants live with toxic mold, lead, and elevators that don’t work. Rather than increasing the cost to residents, HUD should be increasing money for capital improvements to ensure that the homes meet basic standards.
These proposed changes will disproportionately harm the families with the most tenuous attachments to the labor market, for instance people working for a low wage or unable to find work. Black and Latino workers are disproportionately represented among low-wage employees, workers earning the lower tipped minimum wage, people working part-time for economic reasons, and people who are unemployed or marginally attached to the workforce.
Continuing racial discrimination disadvantages black and Latino workers who already are harder hit by financial crises, as these communities suffer greater drops in employment and wages during these periods than the rest of the nation.
This proposal will exacerbate financial crises felt throughout the economy or in particular communities, as people suffer reduced hours, lower wages, or lost jobs and are unable to meet the higher rents or work requirements. The economy will destabilize working families across the board, but that destabilization will become even greater if HUD lowers its threshold for moving people out of its programs and out of their homes.
Carson is unlikely to have become a neurosurgeon, a presidential nominee, and the Secretary of HUD without his mother’s ability to leverage safety-net programs to provide for their family. Because of the outsized power of corporations relative to workers and the historical and ongoing systemic racism against black people, safety-net programs, including housing assistance, remain vital. This proposal should be rejected.
Afua Atta-Mensah is the executive director of Community Voices Heard, amember-led multiracial organization, principally women of color and low-income families in New York State that builds power to secure social, economic and racial justice for all. Connie M. Razza is the director of policy and research at Demos, a public policy organization working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy.
*Originally published in The Hill 05/14/18