Image: Øyvind Holmstad, Creative Commons License 4.0

While there are a lot of terrific things planned for the $3.5 trillion (over 10 years) Build Back Better reconciliation bill — like paid family and medical leave, extending the expanded child tax credit, and making a serious start at moving the US off fossil fuels — the good folks at the American Prospect would like to call your attention to another part of the proposal that hasn't gotten quite as much attention. Namely, that's the bill's funding for housing programs, amounting to some $327 billion that will go to long-neglected public housing and some innovative ideas for giving people on the economic margins more control over the policies affecting the places they literally have to live with, and in.

Prospect columnist Alexander Sammon says the package of housing investments takes

an interesting all-of-the-above approach to one of the most vexing problems in the American economy, the soaring cost of housing. The bill features $327 billion in new spending on housing, with the bulk of that money going to public housing and housing vouchers, as well as some low-income development. All told, a best-case scenario could see the bill cutting homelessness in half within five years.

Mind you, that depends on the package surviving the process of debate and amendment as the reconciliation bill moves along; the wonky way bills get funded to meet the Senate's reconciliation process also means some of the funding expires after five years and would need to be made permanent by a future Congress.

Let's look around the new construction, shall we?


For starters, to encourage the construction of more affordable housing, the package includes $4.5 billion aimed at reforming zoning, in the form of "grants, basically a bribe, to municipalities that change their land-use laws to encourage and streamline the building of duplexes and triplexes on single-family lots." Sammon didn't say when Sen. Cory Booker would be moving into your neighborhood, though, so don't get your hopes up.

Beyond that, there's a a big pot of $80 billion for public housing, with a whopping $66 billion of it to be awarded at the discretion of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge. It's more or less intended as an end-run around conventional funding formulas for public housing, which have left public housing in some of the US's biggest cities underfunded for years.

For the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), for example, which sports a $40 billion shortfall in its funding, Secretary Fudge could nearly close the gap in one fell swoop.

On top of that, there's another $90 billion in new funding for Section 8 housing vouchers, of which $75 billion is designated to be spent in five years. Sammon notes that amounts to about a 50 percent increase in Section 8 funding annually, and it's desperately needed:

Currently, Section 8 has only enough funding to help 1 in 5 families with their housing needs. This proposal would step up aid to extremely low-income households and those at risk of homelessness or domestic violence. Like the public-housing program, it's not enough to fully fund all of the expressed need, but it's a big step in the right direction.

Other funding will go to boost the construction of affordable, multi-family housing, and to help create "community land trusts," which are one of the hot ideas for housing activists, at least in cities where property prices are relatively inexpensive. Sammon 'splains:

Community land trusts allow communities to purchase the land on which housing exists and maintain control over the housing stock, a shared-equity structure that prevents outside landlords from driving up prices and allows residents to benefit from rising property values. The bill allocates money to help community groups purchase housing to be managed in this way.

Egad, Martha, that sounds like socialism, or — even scarier! — a way to help lower-income people have more stability and control over their housing. It won't work in places where land prices are sky high, but it's a pretty cool idea for many places that aren't New York or goddamn Boise. Activists in Santa Fe, New Mexico, are working to create such a community land trust on 64 acres currently owned by the city; if it's successful, it'll be the largest community land trust in the US. (That's a nifty link, too; Santa Fe is also experimenting with a guaranteed income program, which has nothing to do with the reconciliation bill but is freaking exciting.)

Also fairly cool, the housing package is designed to do an end run around the "Faircloth Amendment," a 1998 bit of anti-public-housing fuckery that "prohibits HUD from funding new public-housing development if it increases the number of units a public-housing authority owns." Realistically, most of the new funding is aimed at finally addressing long-delayed repairs, so there's not much likelihood the money will go to new units, but the bill is written to allow public housing authorities the flexibility to add units if their maintenance backlogs are taken care of.

Ah, but there is of course a catch, and it could be a nasty one: Pressure from Democratic "moderates" to chop down the overall size of the reconciliation package could lead to big cuts to the housing provisions, because public housing isn't as exciting as other programs, and while millions of Americans depend on public housing or Section 8 vouchers, they certainly don't have high-powered lobbyists, just fervent activists and some progressive members of Congress to look out for them. Sammon warns,

Despite the White House's willingness to engage with housing activists and groups like the National Low Income Housing Coalition, it will be a battle to keep the interests of low-income residents and the precariously housed in place. If the size of the bill begins to shrink, the lack of publicity surrounding the housing commitments and the amount of money allocated to people who don't tend to vote in outsized numbers will make it an easy target for cut-happy Democrats like Joe Manchin.

That would truly suck, and it would be incredibly short-sighted, since housing is one of the biggest drivers of inflation. Say, aren't all the "centrists" worried about inflation?

Bringing down housing costs would be the most meaningful method of limiting living expenses for Americans, combating the "inflation tax" that Sen. Manchin opined about so nonsensically in The Wall Street Journal. If he was serious about that worry, he would be the housing proposals' biggest advocate.

Well maybe, but are we really sure people should get help if they can't bundle a lot of campaign contributions? What about housing for oil wells, huh?

[American Prospect / American Prospect / Image: Øyvind Holmstad, Creative Commons License 4.0]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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