Xavier de Souza Briggs on Failed Urban Policy and Proposals to ‘Tear Down HUD’

This post is about federal housing policy and its reform, and features comments by Professor Briggs (and further commentary by Peter Dreier and Dowell Myers below), but first a bit about its genesis. Some years ago, Univ. Buffalo’s Bill Page took the bold initiative to create a listserv for urban planning academics called PLANET. Most often used for informational postings these days, such as job ads or publication announcements, it does occasionally feature an exchange or post that, by all rights, deserves a wider audience — by being republished, say, in an illustrated urban planning research blog.

Hey, I have one of those. And a PLANET post this week by MIT’s Xavier de Souza Briggs more than fits the bill.

Briggs and Occidental’s Peter Dreier recently discussed several related aspects of federal housing policy in their, “Memphis Murder Mystery? No, Just Mistaken Identity,” in Shelterforce, which in turn was prepared in response to Hanna Rosin’s article, “American Murder Mystery,” in The Atlantic. (The Rosin article attributes a spike in Memphis crime, and by extension elsewhere, to federal housing subsidy programs aimed at deconcentrating poverty. The Briggs/Dreier reply, endorsed there by more than 2 dozen prominent housing researchers, takes issue mostly with Rosin’s causation story, which is indeed brazenly weak, then goes on to talk extensively about various empirics of federal housing and antipovery programs. It is a quite useful read, with attitude.) Got all that?

With this series of events in mind, I asked Briggs, a former HUD assistant secretary, and Dreier for a quick reaction to Friday’s New York Times op-ed by Columbia’s Sudhir Venkatesh (pictured here, also a blogger for Freakonomics), “To Fight Poverty, Tear Down HUD?” The op-ed suggests that HUD’s mission has drifted in such a way as to leave it ineffective in dealing either with national housing policy or poverty alleviation, and specifically suggests redistributing its responsibilities to other agencies, as well as creating a new, better directed, articulated, and empowered agency for the core mission of fighting poverty. (Note to self: Make next op-ed on national urban policy less abstract, more specific.)

That is, I wrote:

Xav and Peter, et al.
Given that you have thought related issues through so thoroughly lately, it would be great to see a pithy response here to today’s Venkatesh’s NYT oped on restructuring HUD and federal housing assistance. The reader comments there alone are unusually well informed and thoughtful, but why not also a quick note by professionals on the planning academic listserv? ….

That very day, Briggs provided this quite thoughtful reply which, with his kind permission, I reprint here:

randy —

thanks for pushing us, and i agree that we need to elevate these issues generally.

the foreclosure crisis, job ills, and climate change could be leading to a broader conversation along the lines sudhir mentions, but they aren’t. it will take work to make that happen, given how the presidential campaigns–and the body politic–are focused for now.

a few reactions to his op-ed, taking the solution first and the problems second:

1. does he have the right solution–“tear down HUD”–to the problem(s) he’s diagnosed?

– re: HUD works each-city-on-its-own

it’s little known, but HUD’s founding charter directs the agency to guide the federal government’s support for sensible METROPOLITAN development. but that was a non-starter from way back, in part because it’s an unwieldy mandate and in part because localities resist regionalism, as some of the comments on the NYT site note.

too few planners or members of the public even know that HUD funded regional planning for years, until the reagan admin slashed funding. we tried to revive some of this in the clinton admin, but it was hard to get the congress to approve new programs or new funding of any kind.

that history aside, there’s little evidence that super-agencies can work to orchestrate the many functions one would want brought together on behalf of city-regions (inter-connected cities and suburbs). even white house led multi-agency efforts are extremely challenging to pull off, which is not to say we can afford to leave everything stovepiped and fragmented.

integrating a few key EPA, DOT, and HUD funding streams–around the idea of prosperty, equity, and sustainability, say–could go a long way, for instance. again, i don’t know that this points to abolishing HUD, and i don’t think the structure of HUD is 1 of the top 5 barriers to regional action. but the work needs doing somehow.

brookings’ latest “blueprint for american prosperity” tries to articulate what a holistic federal compact with regions could look like, short of massive integration of functions.

– re: HUD’s programs would be better run by other agencies

this is a recurring proposal. gingrich pushed it, conservative think tanks have broached it from time to time, and HUD secretary cisneros did circulate some bold proposals for reform that included “off loading” programs.

there is a good deal of truth to the idea–which is not in sudhir’s op-ed–that the agency combines too many objectives. they compete with each other, some inevitably get shortchanged, and it’s hard to maintain the talent needed (at all levels) to pursue all the objectives well.

i support the idea of taking fair housing enforcement away from HUD, which has always struggled with it, and giving this function to an equal housing opportunity commission, analogous to the equal employment opportunity commission. john goering’s last book, an edited volume, explored this.

mayors would riot at the idea of regionalizing their block grants, but some politically viable way of supporting regional action–and not just the allocation of road-building pork-barrel spending by metro “planning” orgs–is key. again, we got almost nowhere on this in the clinton admin, despite some effort.

i can’t imagine how commerce or treasury, which sudhir highlights but which have little experience with social assistance programs, could run anything quite like HUD’s low-income housing assistance programs. but some programs could be changed, e.g. stegman, dreier and others have called for adding a housing allowance to the earned income tax credit, which would continue to be run by treasury (the IRS). the problem is that the EITC doesn’t reach the nonworking poor, who rely on HUD’s vouchers and public housing to a significant degree.

other kinds of programs, such as those with individual and not government or nonprofit clients, e.g., housing finance (FHA mortgage insurance) could, in principle, be off loaded or made independent again (FHA predates HUD, after all).

in the end, sudhir seems ambivalent, as well as concerned about quite a range of problems: the op-ed shifts focus. he wants (a) a more effective agent for the “UD” in “HUD” plus (b) some changes to housing programs.

i sincerely welcome the debate, but i don’t yet see that abolishing HUD is the way to achieve either of those two things.

2. are the problems real and significant? and is HUD to blame?

a number of the problems are serious, including the shortcomings of hope 6 in key cities.

as we wrote in response to the rosin article, hope 6 plays out very differently from place to place. it isn’t fair to dismiss it as a mere give-away to developers or a program for displacement across the board. there are wonderful hope 6 developments, there are responsible and hardworking affordable housing developers delivering real innovation, and resident relocation improved in a number of cities after the flaws started to get documented a decade ago.

also, we could be talking about income mixing that doesn’t put the middle class together with the very poor in the same housing developments. there are less ambitious mixes that would still reduce the extreme economic and racial segregation in many of our cities.

and like rosin, sudhir writes about the displacement of the poor outward from inner-city housing projects as *creating* distress, but we know it’s hard to make that attribution. poverty was suburbanizing, for example, long before public housing demolitions took scale. the notion that large-scale, aggressive demolition in key cities tipped some areas should be studied carefully, though. we need better evidence, given the tendency to blame the poor and poverty programs for neighborhood decline.

what’s undeniable is the number of distressed neighborhoods–more now, thanks to our run-away subprime lending, the collapse of the property bubble, and jobless recovery–that see poverty and social problems growing in their midst and don’t see any concerted effort to respond.

i don’t see HUD or hope 6 as major culprits in the changing geography of distress, but i won’t deny that HUD and other federal programs have contributed (on one hand) and also shrunk away from the kinds of bolds steps that would respond to that change.

— xav

Related links, suggested by Prof. Briggs:

Howard Husock on HUD and federal housing reform:

Real Public Housing Reform: How the Bush Administration’s Plans are Quietly Revolutionary,” City Journal, 2003.

America’s Trillion Dollar Mistake: The Failure of American Housing Policy, Ivan R. Dee, 2005.

(Husock’s 2003 congressional testimony, defending major proposed reform of housing assistance by the Bush administration, is also online, along with other materials, here.)

For some good history of HUD and broad policy directions:

Cityscape special issue, “Commemorating HUD’s 30th Anniversary,” 1995.

Cityscape special issue, “Housing Policy in the New Millennium,” 2001.

p.s. I shouldn’t be surprised, but was, to find via wikipedia that Venkatesh is a graduate of our neighborhood Irvine high school, University. Its students and teachers are all aware of the celebrity grads, such as Will Ferrell (interviewed in the local paper this week about how growing up bored in Irvine forced him to be funny) and the friendliest angry political rock star you’d ever meet, Zack de la Rocha, but somehow the academic luminaries don’t make it to the celebrated alum list.

pp.s. Irrelevant unbelievable true story about place-based cultural assets: My youngest, then a new Uni freshman, runs into a new pal in town last Fall. Said pal is quite excited as he’d somehow scored a ticket to see the just reunited Rage Against the Machine, including access to the “green room” with the performers. That’s great, my son says, and tell Zack hi for me if you see him. His friend says, “Zack? How would you know Zack?” As son starts to explain to skeptical pal (the details are boring but I was the greatest dad in the universe for a spell there) … Zack walks by. Son introduces him to the assorted dumbstruck friends, he and Zack chat about orthodontics, jarrana music, and a local cultural center we favor, El Centro Cultural de México, then ZDLR heads on his way. Extremely cool dude .

Question: Did anything like that ever happen to you in high school? Not me. Not by a long shot. I mean, I’ve since met my share of celebrity planning professors. (Note to self: Get on youtube! … in flattering, career-enhancing way.) I was introduced to Leonardo DiCaprio’s mother once, but didn’t realize it so I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count, especially since I didn’t use her to disabuse my skeptics, which I thought only happened in the movies. So I wonder, will I be losing a HUD-reform argument on an Irvine street corner some day and have Professor Venkatesh — in town perhaps to visit relatives — happen by to bail me out? Maybe.

ppp.s. Son’s band teacher catches wind of his acquaintance with Mr. DLR. Is huge Rage fan (as are we all). Calls son in to ask if he would ask Zack to revisit Uni high for some sort of band event. Son replies, uh, no, that would be uncool.

pppp.s. Hey Rage, new music porfa! On housing reform in the new millennium! … uh, wait, I spoke too soon. Zack has a side project band, One Day as a Lion, that just released an EP last week. Zack’s familiar rage and definitely some anti-poverty themes. This is kind of a big deal, as we haven’t heard much sound from him for years and years.

Saturday, July 26th, 2008
randall Crane
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