In his recent press conference, memorable for a series of hypocritical and borderline-false statements, King George the Clueless berated the Democratic Congress for stuffing his supplemental war funding bill with what he called “pork”. Some $1.2B of that “pork” was headed for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the majority of it targeted for housing construction and redevelopment. It was the first housing appropriation of any significance in the 12 years since the Republicans took over the House, and the first to directly address the devastation to housing when Katrina hit.
During the 12 years that Republicans ran the House, their leaders didn’t pay much attention to affordable-housing activists. Despite soaring rents and complaints of a deepening affordability crisis, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) told his conference that he didn’t want to see housing bills on the floor. He thought housing programs were unreformed welfare….
But now that Democrats took over the House in November, their leaders are affordable-housing activists. Liberals Barney Frank (Mass.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.) run the two panels overseeing housing policy after agitating for years, without success, for increased government rent assistance. They came to office promising to pass the first major housing legislation since the early 1990s.
Last month, the House passed their bill, a measure to address the housing shortages that have festered on the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. After the storm wiped out 82,000 rental units in New Orleans, DeLay blocked a housing bill from Richard H. Baker (R-La.) because, sources said, the majority leader did not consider Baker a “team player.” But Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), now speaker of the House, campaigned on Katrina inaction — a prime example, she told audiences last fall, of the “do-nothing Congress” — and vowed a fast reversal. The resulting Democratic bill includes several bold precedents, including a “right to return” for all displaced hurricane victims and “one-for-one replacement” for all demolished public housing units.
So actually appropriating the money you promised so glibly while you posed for a photo-op in Jackson Square after the storm passed is your idea of “pork”, Mr President? It was easy to make promises you knew Tom DeLay was going to kill, wasn’t it? But Tommy is back killing bugs and fending off corruption and fraud charges while comparing himself to Christ (link via Digby). Now that Nancy Pelosi is Speaker and the bill has actually passed, it’s “pork”? But…it was your idea, Your Majesty. Remember?
Fine words backed up by…nothing. And now that the Democrats have done the work for you, you won’t sign it? Are you going to veto these, too?
Democratic leaders say the Katrina bill — which has yet to come up for a vote in the Senate — is just a beginning. They hope to create a huge affordable-housing trust fund, restrict predatory lending, expand rent subsidies and tax credits for low-income housing, and push the federal government back into apartment construction.
“It’s night and day,” said Michael Kane, an affordable-housing advocate in Boston. “The atmosphere has totally changed.”
Housing has been a major problem for a decade, not just in New Orleans but all over the country. Rents have shot through the stratosphere while wages have remained stagnant for 20 years, the affordable housing market has shrunk beyond belief, the subprime mortgage market is imploding due to high-risk mortgage practices loaded with small-print clauses, tricks, and hidden charges (that’s deregulation for you), and you installed a HUD Sec who thinks it’s his job not to do his job. Marvelous.
Meanwhile, the crisis deepens.
[H]ousing activists are delighted to have like-minded “housers” in charge. They finally get to meet with leadership and provide wish lists to staff. And they have serious wishes: Over the past two decades, as the population has increased and rents have skyrocketed, the number of federally assisted apartments has not budged. Only 1 in 4 families eligible for subsidies receives them, and half of all “working poor” families spend more than half their income on rent. Despite the rising rate of homeownership, advocates say the price for decent shelter is still the primary obstacle to the American dream, more burdensome than the costs of health insurance, gasoline or taxes.
But after years of battling their enemies, some progressives are concerned their friends will take them for granted.
“The big question is whether the Democrats are really committed to change, or whether they’re just making political statements,” said Barbara Sard, a housing activist with the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
They’re right to be worried. Not only are the Democrats beholden to many of the same corporate interests that own the GOP but they still have the Republican obstructionists in Congress to deal with. The challenge is not just to start reversing the downward housing spiral, but to do so in the face of continued Republican stonewalling. When Barney Frank allowed the Pubs to offer amendments to the housing section of the bill, everything they came up with was designed to destroy or cripple it. Wanting to get some kind of aid to the Gulf Coast over strenuous Republican objections, Barney
quietly killed three Democratic amendments that would have subsidized tens of thousands of families who lost homes in Katrina, although he relented on one of them. And he berated one activist who urged him to do more.
Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.)…took Katrina personally — as a native of New Orleans who watched his home town drown, as a Houstonian who represents thousands of evacuees, and as an African American. So he sent Frank three amendments, one for nearly $1 billion in housing for Texas and Alabama, one to create 25,000 new subsidized apartments along the Gulf, and one to approve long-term rent-subsidy vouchers for all evacuees who had temporary FEMA vouchers or who lived in FEMA trailers.
But the night before his committee debated the bill, Frank removed two of Green’s amendments and whittled the 25,000 apartments to 4,500. After listening to the objections of his committee’s top Republican, Spencer Bachus (Ala.), Frank had concluded that Green’s proposals were too expensive and controversial to become law; the 4,500 apartments stayed because a similar amendment proposed by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) had slipped through the Senate last year before getting deleted by House Republicans.
Though Green’s bills would only have scratched the surface of the need, Barney – who has been a dedicated housing advocate for decades – thought the Republicans would filibuster them to death (which they probably would have) while Jackson continued to deny appropriated funds and the Bush Administration continued making the situation worse by going on with its plan to turn New Orleans into a resort for the rich. Maxine Waters, Chair of the House Financial Services’ housing subcommittee, held a hearing in New Orleans itself.
The most contentious issue at the hearing was the Bush administration’s plan to tear down several huge low-income projects and redevelop them as mixed-income developments. Many low-income renters believe “redevelopment” means “gentrification,” and in New Orleans, previous redevelopments have reduced low-income housing. So Waters called for a moratorium on demolition until displaced residents could return to participate in the planning.
I like the wording: “low-income renters believe“, as if it were faith-based, but then followed immediately by the fact that “previous redevelopments” have been just that – gentrification.
What’s worrying housing advocates is the size of the problem compared to the relief being offered – sort of like handing a couple of aspirin to a guy that’s just been run over by a truck and saying, “We’ll get you an ambulance tomorrow or the next day. Maybe next week. For now, just lay there and bleed.”
Not only are the Democrats offering a bare minimum of help because that’s all they can get through the Republican roadblock but they still have to contend with Alphonso Jackson. Even if they appropriated all the money in the budget to help Katrina victims and the Gulf Coast get back on their feet, Jackson’s history is that he’ll just refuse to disperse it. The Democratic Congress not only has to do its job over GOP stubbornness, it has to force Jackson to do his. Barney, as is his signature, put it bluntly (this is why we love him up here in Mass):
“We’ve been on the defensive,” he told the coalition. “We’re going to get off the defensive, but a little slower than I’d like.”
Frank’s staff has asked housing advocates for lists of policies they would like changed, with an emphasis on changes that will not cost money. He told the coalition’s members that if they want federal dollars for low-income renters, “the single most important thing you can tell Congress is: End the war in Iraq.”
He’s right, of course. The debacle in Iraq has drained the country dry and then some. We have an enormous financial crisis looming. The deficit is blooming like a cactus flower, eating up the resources we need to deal with all the problems a Republican Congress has created over the last 12 years, and the Democrats are in a near-impossible situation for the moment. Ending the war would at least give us some breathing room.
But King George the Clueless sits on his Washington throne determined to kill more soldiers and keep the Katrina refugees homeless and New Orleans in ruins rather than allow 70% of the American people to have their way because it would require admitting he was wrong. And in classic spoiled-brat style, never mind his fine empty words and promises, he just won’t do that.
Worst. President. Ever.