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Today is:
Housing Matters
By Charlie Hu

As the Presidential Campaign begins in the United States issues like homeland security, domestic economy and the war in Iraq are discussed and debated daily. Although the economy is given much attention the talk around it fails to reflect the catastrophic reality experienced by a significant and growing section of the population. A basic human right like housing has become unattainable for many because of skyrocketing rents and government closure of public housing projects. The philosophy that poverty exists as a behavioral malady and not the result of a society that is sick has been accepted by both Republicans and Democrats.

Housing refomer Catherine Bauer

The federal government began to play a real role in housing policy in the 1920’s, shortly before the Great Depression. Herbert Hoover instituted policies grounded in self-reliance like loans to buy houses. As banks collapsed and millions became homeless, critics began calling for direct assistance to families to enable everybody to have a home. Hoover never wavered and the situation worsened until the New Deal policies of the Roosevelt administration were enacted. Housing reformers of the New Deal era, led by political organizer Catherine Bauer believed that adequate and affordable housing would go a long way towards curing the social sickness existing at the time. Bauer led a movement for government-subsidized housing and the creation of a noncommercial housing sector free from profit and speculation. Bauer envisioned an environment where lower and middle class families lived in the same neighborhoods in decent, affordable dwellings.

Under Roosevelt, the Public Works Administration Housing Division built 55 public housing developments containing a total of 25,000 units. Although nowhere near the amount necessary to satisfy the need, the plan remains an early victory for housing reformers. The real estate industry found it unacceptable that people shouldn’t hand over a huge chunk of their money to them for the right to live in a safe place. In a showdown over the magnitude and shape of public housing they demonized housing reform as socialism and successfully lobbied to have the programs stripped down significantly.

The inability of the reformers to prevail has shaped federal housing policy ever since. The nation has operated under a dual-pronged housing system consisting of huge tax breaks to promote the private development of single-family homes for the rich and the middle class, and insufficient subsidies to help some of the poor live in government-assisted projects.

Federal construction peaked at 600,000 units/year under the Johnson administration and plummeted to 15,000 units in 1980. Since 1996, the government has budgeted for the creation of zero units. Contrast that with the over 5 million unit housing shortage faced in this country and it becomes clear that there also exists a shortage of rational folks making decisions in Washington. Concurrently, the U.S. spends less on government housing subsidies for the poor than any other industrial country.

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