Not the Doctor to Fix America’s Housing and Urban Issues

558New Orleans  It is hard to escape the feeling that the only reason that President-elect Trump is preparing to recommend Dr. Ben Carson as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is because he is an African-American, and that somehow aligns with Trump’s view of those parts of urban America where he doesn’t have any financial interests in golf courses, hotels, or casinos and are too far to be seen from any of his towers. I can almost see his gears grinding as he comes to the conclusion that urban means crime means black, so let’s tweet!

Carson might argue, as undoubtedly he will, that he’s “good to go” in this job because he lived in public housing in Detroit. If that’s a qualification for running the immensely important HUD operation, then there are several million residents of public or subsidized housing that would arguably be more able to make that case for their own candidacy than than the rich, right neurosurgeon, Ben Carson. Paul Newman was probably Trump’s first choice to run HUD, because after all he starred in a movie called “Hud,” so that probably would have been perfect in Trump-tweet-world, and he probably was disappointed when someone told him that Newman was now dead.

Carson is wrongheaded, but that is not to say that he’s not a smart man, which is why he dillydallied around for weeks after his name first surfaced, probably hoping that he would be offered something different where he wouldn’t have had to buy a clue. Bromides about bootstraps are not really a plan for fair housing or urban development. Retooling Community Development Block Grant money, specifically designed for lower income communities into some kind of pretzel-shaped monstrosity that funds real estate developments and hotels and other stuff that the boss in the White House might embrace, is hardly a fix for anything other than some developer’s profit-and-loss statement.

The only thing that emerged clearly from Carson’s campaign was his interest in increasing his book sales. Even if he cajoles every housing authority in the country into buying a copy, someone needs to tell him that most housing project residents are not going to be running over to make sure one of his volumes is in their libraries. The campaign was recent enough that most of us can recall that in the debates, Dr. Carson was pretty much lost at sea on both domestic and international issues, none of which will make anyone who cares about the desperate needs of urban America sleep better knowing that he is running the show.

The fact that Carson has no experience in running anything doesn’t matter to Trump and almost seems like nitpicking for us to point out since almost none of Trump’s other appointees have much of any experience with the content of their coming portfolios either. I would hate to pick on Carson for that, because it would seem like I was discriminating. Nonetheless, former Philadelphia Mayor Nutter may have said it best in talking to a Times reporter about the likely incoming HUD Secretary:

“I’m proud that I had seven years with President Barack Obama, who actually knew about community development because he was a community organizer,” Mr. Nutter said. “To the Philadelphia city government: Good luck dealing with the Trump administration.”

And, good luck to the rest of us and the country!

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Fair Housing Assessment Should be an Organizing Handle – Is it?

fhNew Orleans   The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is trying to do something about the continuing polarization of our communities by race, class, and ethnicity, so let’s give them some credit for that. In a new rule last year they tried to put some teeth in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, by requiring all cities that get federal housing money to submit detailed plans on how they are actually going about reducing neighborhood segregation and increasing “access to opportunities” for everyone. No Congressional action was required or I wouldn’t even be writing this. HUD as part of the Obama Administration was simply promulgating rules to try to add some teeth to the original act.

The requirement coming into full force now is the 2016 Assessment of Fair Housing. All cities in the United States receiving federal housing funds are mandated to do the assessment. This includes not only cities with public housing authorities, but also cities getting HOME monies for housing development and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds among others. “Access to opportunities” is not just rhetoric either, because this language includes jobs, transportation, and even access to quality schools. Frankly, this is anti-apartheid language.

Reading old local newspapers from a stack accumulated during my two weeks of meetings in Europe, while jet-lagged at 3 AM in the morning, an item had caught my eye from the rough draft of the New Orleans report comparing a working / middle income neighborhood in New Orleans called Gentilly, that is majority African-American with an upper-middle class, largely white neighborhood called Lakeview. In the majority-black neighborhood, the life expectancy found by the assessment was a little more than 54 years old, while in the overwhelmingly white area the life expectancy was 80, a quarter of a century more. Is that an eye opener or what?

Almost everyone this side of Donald Trump buttressed by scores of research studies understands that if we had full residential integration the gap in education and job networks would be drastically reduced. When we talk about equality and narrowing the every widening gap in America today, forcing cities to have real 5-year plans with annual updates on how they are actually going achieving real diversity across the board would seem to be a huge organizing handle. Real plans that force city and housing authority to justify any reduction of affordable and low income housing should be huge win. And, wow, a real plan that stopped CDBG funds that are supposed to be spent only in ways that upgrade lower income families and their communities rather than being used as a slush fund for local developers and mayoral cronies would be almost a revolutionary reform.

Public hearings are now being held on such assessments in cities all over the country. This would have been ACORN’s moment for local groups in all 600 organized communities to make their demands in more than 100 cities about what really needed to be done. These assessments should be a big handle for a major campaign wherever there is the capacity to launch one.

Yet, talking to some organizers here and there, they were skeptical. The early experience in recent years with this planning process before the new rule has been disappointing. How sharp are the teeth being implanted in the Fair Housing Act? Is a Democratic administration really going to withhold CDBG funds from urban mayors who are overwhelmingly Democratic as well to prod them to do better at achieving diversity in their cities or is this just window dressing?

A real campaign to make this tool a hammer rather than a paintbrush would let us see what might be possible.

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