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!


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.


ConnectHome is Not Enough to Bridge the Digital Divide

connect-home-e1437087538673New Orleans     In Durant, Oklahoma in the heart of the Choctaw Nationa, President Obama essentially likened his new program, ConnectHome, to a “dreamweaver,” saying that America has “an interest in making sure [young people] can achieve [their] dreams.”   The pilot program is touted as providing internet access to 275000 households containing 200000 children in 27 cities and one Native American tribal area. The program developed through the Department of Housing and Urban Development chose the cities competitively and the list is wide ranging including a little bit for everyone in Albany, GA; Atlanta, GA; Baltimore, MD; Baton Rouge, LA; Boston, MA; Camden, NJ; Choctaw Nation, OK; Cleveland, OH; Denver, CO; Durham, NC; Fresno, CA; Kansas City, MO; Little Rock, AR; Los Angeles, CA; Macon, GA; Memphis, TN; Meriden, CT; Nashville, TN; New Orleans, LA; New York, NY; Newark, NJ; Philadelphia, PA; Rockford, IL; San Antonio, TX; Seattle, WA; Springfield, MA; Tampa, FL; and Washington, DC.

Looking at the details, though this is a very, very, very little bit for anyone. This is not a bridge across the digital divide so much as a small ball of twine pitched over a ravine pretending to be a rope bridge. While low-and-moderate income families are falling to the bottom, Wiley Coyote style, let’s look at the devilish details.

It’s not free. It’s some free. Supposedly, Google Fiber is going to offer some free Internet connections to some, but certainly not all, public housing residents in Atlanta, Durham, North Carolina, Kansas City, Missouri, and Nashville. Those are the fortunate ones. For the rest of the supposed beneficiaries with little thanks to eight different internet providers they might qualify to pay $9.95 per month. The announcement from the White House and other reports are also vague on whether all of the rest really will be offered the $9.95 plan, so there may be more sadness to come in other housing projects.

This is the same bait-and-switch on closing the digital divide that we have seen earlier with Comcast that has under-performed and scammed on the program, even though it was expressly required by the FCC as a condition of its merger with NBC/Universal, and became one of many Achilles heels that blocked the Comcast monopoly acquisition of Times-Warner Cable. Had Comcast spent any money on anything other than public relations to make the program work, many times a quarter million households around the country, including in housing projects, would already have internet.

The New York Times in their puff piece about the ConnectHome program called out Cox Communications for special praise as one the eight providers. Unlike the Times we don’t have memory loss about this. Cox was also one of the companies that the FCC had previously touted as having volunteered, along with Times-Warner, to institute a $9.95 plan without an FCC order, just out of the goodness of their corporate heart, much like this pilot. In Baton Rouge and New Orleans efforts by ACORN, Local 100, and our allies, were completely unsuccessful in finding as much as heartbeat for their initiative. One spokesperson for the company in New Orleans claimed that they had tried putting out the word for a couple of weeks in the school district, though no one could remember what happened or exactly when or knew if anyone had gotten the word to sign-up, and they refused to commit to allowing us to spread the word, because no one locally was sure if the program continued. Welcome to nothing.

When ACORN negotiated with Rogers, one of the big three telecoms in Canada, the company almost immediately agreed to provide a $9.95 program for all public housing residents in Toronto, and has subsequently improved the program as we made further demands. Friends, these companies make money on these plans, this is no “favor” to the poor, but a business opportunity on the low end of the market. Although I should add, that it depends on whether a family can qualify, which has also been the Comcast problem for many as the company dredged up unpaid bills at the addresses from years ago as excuses not to approve applicants who made it through their rat maze.

Julian Castro, the new head of HUD, wants to make this a signature program in the little time he has to make a mark at the agency, but what he is talking about is making broadband connections part of the embedded infrastructure of newly built housing. Unfortunately there’s not much being built, and basically that just saves money for the internet providers.

Obama has been doing better at this stuff. This program is a back slide. This is just a head fake example of the common deceit of neoliberalism’s false promises of public-private partnerships where the government aids and abets and the public gets squat. And, in this case the digital divide just gets wider.


HUD Section 3: An Organizing Opportunity for Winning Jobs in Our Neighborhoods


Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 4.11.42 PMNew Orleans     Within the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 3 is nothing new after 45 years of enactment, but it remains a powerful weapon for creating employment in low income communities that is more often left in the holster than used effectively.  Simply put, Section 3 requires HUD contractors to give what we used to call “first preference” to qualified residents when making new hiring decisions.  This is not a set aside for businesses like most of the programs, but an individually driven hiring program.  That is, if workers in the community know about it, if anyone in HUD or the local housing authorities are paying attention to it, and likely if there is an actual organization in the low income community kicking both of their buns to make sure Section 3 is not a dead letter but a real job creator.

            I was reminded of the power and promise of Section 3 and the too often pathetic performance by an article in Shelterforce by Katy Reckdahl that spoke of “lifting the fog on Section 3.”  Reading the article it was clear that it was less a “fog” than a problem of indifferent and nonexistent follow through and enforcement by those responsible or as she wrote, “…agency administrators spoke in a chorus on one point:  No Section 3 jobs program will work without stringent monitoring.”


            And, let’s be clear, the monitoring at every level sucks.  Before 2006, HUD only got 4% of the required Section 3 reports from local and state governments and housing agencies.  Now the figure is up to 25%, but that’s still a failing grade everywhere.  Worst, most should get both F’s and Incompletes, because 80% of the reports according to HUD testimony to Congress indicated that they “failed to meet the minimum goals and did not include valid explanations for this failure….”

            The loopholes Swiss cheese the program as well.  Though required to hire low income workers for 30% of the new hires, there are no requirements that their work will equal 30% of the hours billed on the job, so some contractors “churn” the jobs by hiring a crowd of workers for short term, even one day stints, as laborers to make the numbers required at the lowest wages they can skate by with.  Training also is defined as “to the greatest extent feasible,” providing another loophole, which some smarter agencies have abandoned to prevent contractors from shrugging off the requirement by saying no one could make muster.

            All of which makes Section 3 tailor made for community organizations trying to deliver jobs to their members when there are large and small construction projects happening in housing projects.  It’s a straight up fight where everything is on our side and it’s possible to negotiate not only jobs but the tools to make sure members get the jobs from record inspection to hiring observations to even union cooperation in helping populate apprenticeship programs that are often searching for applicants.  The targets are dirty, the meetings are public, and there are jobs waiting to be won, if we’re willing to get back in the saddle and ride hard on these outfits.



Internet Enabled Neighborhood Discrimination?

Syndication2New Orleans   This is our question for the day.  Are people using the supposedly “neutral” tool of the internet to get around fair housing laws that prevent housing discrimination?  An intriguing piece in the New York Times raises this issue in looking at the data explosion that gives exceptionally specific data on individual communities that therefore just might skirt the law.

The National Association of Realtors’ code of ethics prohibits realtors and associates involved in a sale from volunteering information regarding the racial, religious or ethnic composition of any neighborhood, lest they run afoul of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits steering of clients to or away from neighborhoods out of bias.  But many nonbrokerage real estate websites that act as referral generators for agents readily offer such information.

Whoa!  That sounds like trouble right under our noses and at our doorsteps.

HUD is supposedly looking at the issue but when queried was noncommittal and coy, only saying, “We are aware of the issue and are reviewing it.  It would be premature for us to comment while the review is underway.”  This seems a little bit like the BBC’s “House of Cards” saying, “You might say that, but I couldn’t comment.”

This whole side of the internet that is a tool for hate and division is very troubling, because you can’t blame the internet for providing public information and websites for aggregating it, but what can you do?   We hate to go all “big brother” on people, but it would seem that at least there could be cautions or warnings prompted by searches that could breach the Fair Housing Act.  If you are on YouTube, there are many movies and whatnot that make you prove you are over 18 years of age before letting you go forward into the unknown.  There also seem to be a huge number of scarily accurate algorithms that almost immediately send you an email from Priceline if you checked an airline site for a flight to Managua or from Amazon or a score of others if you looked for a lawnmower on the internet.  No question those folks know how to get into your head.  How about a bunch of warnings from HUD and the government that work like that and send messages to these shoppers looking to walk the line which reminds them of the law and so forth?  Would that be too creepy?

In fact would it be creepy and scary enough to have any impact.  As the kids say, “haters are gonna hate,” so is there any way to stop them?

Maybe not, but it seems to me that we have to at least make it harder for them, and maybe even let them know that somewhere, someone knows what they are up to, even if it’s a computer somewhere crunching data as well and driven by an algorithm that is watching and warning them.

            Better something, than nothing.



A Work and Time Time Test for Public Housing Tenants

Frankfort   Hidden in plain sight in the Obama Administration budget proposal before the U.S. Congress now is a potentially huge and unsettling change in the way that public housing is administered.  The budget seems to envision an expanded requirement that living in public housing could require proof of a job and could be time limited.

             Of the more than 3000 public housing authorities, HUD has only approved experiments along these lines in less than 40 communities according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.  Nonetheless, the new budget proposes opening up such work requirements and time limits broadly.  Housing advocates, including the National Low Income Housing Coalition have correctly warned that such requirements could end up ejecting lower income families and exacerbating homelessness.

             Some local housing authority officials have somewhat disingenuously lobbied for this new eviction flexibility based on the scandalous size of the waiting list for public housing that numbers thousands and thousands in virtually all large cities and often means delays of a decade or more before a family on the list actually acquires an affordable unit in public housing.  The painful paradox is that even as the waiting lists have been growing over the last 30 years, the number of public housing units available has been drastically reduced as a curious matter of national housing policy in both Democratic and Republican Administrations.  Now rather than seize the bull by the horns and enable local housing authorities to increase the number of available units by adding capacity, the Obama Administration is planning to run from the problem by simply allowing more time stamped evictions and work tests even while everyone acknowledges the painfully slow pace of new employment being created as the country theoretically leaves the Great Recession.   How do they come up with this stuff?

             Why not accelerate job creation programs in public housing through public works that recycles families into private sector housing or increase section 8 vouchers and prioritize recruitment and allocation of an expanded voucher program with a preference for public housing tenants to allow them to exit?  I thought Republicans loved vouchers if they deteriorated support for public institutions?  There are probably a 100 better ideas that others could list as well.

             The one thing that seems clear though is that we can not solve the crisis of our affordable housing shortage by creating specious grounds for eviction from the few available units left.  We need to have a solution for these problems, not a willingness to trade bad problems now for even worse problems in the future.