What Federal Funding?

A common tactic used to divert attention from addressing a policy issue is the concern about loss of federal or state funding. These days, you can easily counter that tactic with this rejoinder:

“What funding?”

Our towns have lost devastating levels of state and federal funding, despite our best local efforts as towns to innovate, forge partnerships, and generate new revenue. We’ve also spent a lot of time making the best of a bad situation and doing more with less. It’s part of a decades-long effort to undo the public sector and the promise of the New Deal, but also the part of the advancement of a myth that the private sector can somehow replace services in a more efficient, effective way, while providing the same level of services in an equitable, just way.

It can’t. And if it could, it still wouldn’t.

That being said, I can’t leave out the fact that it’s also part of a perilous tradition in New Jersey where we have tremendous regional governmental redundancy. I’m not advocating for regionalization, per se, but when decisions on local planning, zoning, and transportation are made in vacuums, it hurts us all, bifurcates resources, and institutionalizes socio-economic divisions.

(An aside: It’s why I like the promise of county government and, here in Middlesex County, why I’m excited about several new additions to our freeholder board with backgrounds in social service delivery and understand root cause problem solving. We need to fight for the restoration of our public resources to provide essential services while finding partnerships to realize our social goals.)

Back to federal funding. Recently, in Highland Park, after a lot of work and careful attention, our Public Housing Authority​ was fortunate enough to partner with New Jersey Community Capital​ as a way to conduct necessary capital improvements on 24 of its family homes. This is public housing, mind you, but with $30,000,000,000 in unmet capital needs in our nation’s public housing stock, HUD can’t provide, and now, under HUD Secretary Ben Carson, HUD is more disfigured than ever.

In 2010, I interviewed Ron Sims, then HUD Deputy Secretary. Before coming to HUD, he was county executive in King County, which comprises Seattle. Sims had done some really innovative work in urban development, affordable housing development, transportation, and homelessness, and brought that approach to HUD.

As is my custom, I asked him how he hopes to institutionalize the policies he brings to this government agency. Here’s his response:

“Remember, there are people that will be there now and are going to be there after you leave.” Political appointees are called short-timers because we’re only going to be there four years or eight years. Other people have been there 35 or 40 years.

“But when you empower the people who have been there for a long time, they find is that this is exciting. That’s why they came to HUD. When you tell them what the change is going to be, then, all of a sudden, those people become believers.”

I used to take solace in the idea that our government, staffed with seasoned bureaucrats and technocrats, retained in its DNA the policies of all the administrations it weathered. But Trump is different. When he talks about “draining the swamp,” it’s not about draining corruption, it’s about starving our government and transferring power to the corporate class. I prefer to think of a swamp as the positive resource it is: a vital resource that provides valuable ecological services. If “swamp” is a metaphor for government, I think of it as a vital resource that provides valuable social services.

The HUD budget for FY 18 is facing $6.6 billion in cuts, shrinking the agency by 14 percent. Since roughly 85 percent of HUD’s budget goes to renewing ongoing rental assistance for more than 5 million low income households, other vital programs will be hardest hit.

Here’s what would be eliminated completely. The program descriptors are courtesy of HUD, many of which no longer appear on the agency’s website:

  • HOME Investment Partnerships Program (HOME). This is the largest federal block grant to state and local governments designed exclusively to create affordable housing for low-income households. It provides formula grants to states and localities that communities use – often in partnership with local nonprofit groups – to fund a wide range of activities including building, buying, and/or rehabilitating affordable housing for rent or homeownership or providing direct rental assistance to low-income people.
  • Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). CDBG is a flexible program that provides communities with resources to address a wide range of unique community development needs. Beginning in 1974, the CDBG program is one of the longest continuously run programs at HUD. The CDBG program provides annual grants on a formula basis to 1209 general units of local government and States.
  • Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program (SHOP). SHOP authorizes HUD to make competitive grants to national and regional nonprofit organizations and consortia that have experience in providing or facilitating self-help housing opportunities.
  • Choice Neighborhoods. This program supports locally driven strategies to address struggling neighborhoods with distressed public or HUD-assisted housing through a comprehensive approach to neighborhood transformation. Local leaders, residents, and stakeholders, such as public housing authorities, cities, schools, police, business owners, nonprofits, and private developers, come together to create and implement a plan that transforms distressed HUD housing and addresses the challenges in the surrounding neighborhood. The program is designed to catalyze critical improvements in neighborhood assets, including vacant property, housing, services and schools.

Other cuts include:

  • Funding for public housing repairs by $1.3 billion (68 percent).
  • Funding for Native Americans—who have some of the worst housing needs in America—by $150 million (25 percent).
  • Funding for Housing Choice Vouchers by $300 million, not including the additional resources that would be needed to cover inflationary costs. This is equal to 200,000 vouchers being lost.
  • Funding that would result in the loss of about 12,000 homes for seniors and 6,000 homes for people with disabilities.

Many public sector advocates are wary, and rightfully wary, of policies that encourage partnership with the nonprofit and private sector. I’m not as dogmatic, but we have to be very careful. That being said, when this administration is eliminating essential programs that foster collaboration, it’s simply an open door for the corporate sector to retain all control.

So, again: What funding? If we’re going to take local action on any number of issues, I need more than the threat of the loss of federal funding, because the funding simply isn’t there, and it’s been dwindling for a long, long time.

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