Progressives want Build Back Better to include HUD, but when and how?

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WASHINGTON — On July 20th, the House Financial Services Committee held an extended hearing in Congress over proposed legislation by California Representative Maxine Waters. The hearing was attended mandatorily by new Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Marcia Fudge. The Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen was not present however.

Waters, who represents the Los Angeles 43rd District, has proposed numerous legislations in the past to alleviate homelessness in her district, which has risen to record highs from the Covid-19 pandemic, unemployment, and house evictions. Despite high sponsorship especially from the Democratic Progressive Caucus wing in the House, many of her bills are stalled.

Questions and answers by the committee directed at HUD Secretary Fudge with regard to the proposed legislations were handled with poise even though she did not have a firm grasp on financial details. Since assuming office, Fudge claims, she is trying her best to hasten the dispensation of federal emergency rental assistance monies.

The central issue between the House Democrats and House Republicans is how to address the growing number of evictions as President Biden has signaled that he will not be extending the eviction moratorium. By law, under CDC guidelines, the federal government is allowing a Covid-19 pandemic-related moratorium on rental payment till the end of July 2021, however many landlords continue to evict tenants for nonpayment; property managers are also filing lawsuits to challenge tenant claims.

In the meantime, millions of Americans are at-risk of falling behind on their rental payments and becoming evicted. Another issue discussed at the hearing is why additional funding would be proposed when of the tens of billions allocated in last year’s Covid-19 relief bills, less than 5% had been dispensed at the state or local level for emergency rental assistance. In Washington, D.C. for instance, $130 million has been allocated for rental assistance, but the application process is lengthy, takes roughly 45 days in review, and only about 1/4 are approved. According to the Biden administration, emergency monies that remain unspent will be revoked on September 30th.

Too often enforcement of eviction moratoriums varies with property owners, particularly for luxury apartment-homes. Tenants will probably rather pay the monthly rent than suffer the indignity of arrears later. Advocacy organizations such as National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), and Poor News Network (PNN) are sponsoring guest panelists offering case studies on how to legally break lease-agreements. However the work and need for organization is onerous, time-consuming, and often creates its own paper-trail to manage.

Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign in Philadelphia continues to call for the right to occupy vacant homes. In Oakland, Moms 4 Housing squatted in a vacant house and were eventually housed. However for each success story, a thousand more San Franciscans are turning up on the streets because emergency shelters are usually filled to capacity.

Representative Waters appeared recently as a guest panelist at a NLIHC virtual meeting to promote her latest housing proposals. She described last year’s accomplishments: relief packages, including the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan, approved in December 2020 provide over $30 billion dollars worth in rental assistance, vouchers, and support for agencies assisting the newly homeless.

Each day in the House, tens of bills may be introduced, so when Progressive Democratic lawmakers are not actively introducing new legislation designed to alleviate homelessness, unemployment, climate change, and social justice, they will eagerly sign on to similar bills thereby amalgamizing more support. Maybe only one in several hundred bills makes it to the Senate, but it will have been more thoroughly vetted in the vat of similarly themed legislations, eventually fine-tuned and honed-down to the most essential details.

HR 4497 Housing is Infrastructure Bill (117th Congress 2021-2022) ensures that HUD funding is included in President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, now into its third month of negotiations. Both Fudge and Waters firmly believe that Housing belongs with the national infrastructure debate and therefore $600 billion is allocated for housing improvements. According to Waters, between 2016 and 2020 alone, $616 billion was spent to address climate change and weather-related disasters that displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes. She states that the funding is there for public housing, housing trust fund, housing vouchers, and strengthening resilience for the very low income, and the disabled.

We are living in a climate emergency. Wildfires are raging, sea levels are rising, and severe weather events are getting stronger. Meanwhile homes are being destroyed, and not nearly enough is being done to address environmental racism and the ways in which communites of color across this country suffer disproportionately from a lack of action. We cannot stand by as corporations, big oil, and industry titans pollute the air we breathe and contaminate the water we drink without consequence. —Repr. Maxine Waters, July 22, 2021, Remarks, Congressional Record

A slough of similar bills are in Committee for consideration. HR 4495 would improve Housing Equity for first-time minority home buyers, who traditionally are red-lined out of neighborhoods with better schools and quality care centers. HR 4496 Ending Homelessness Act of 2021 provides for those who don’t normally qualify, such as in gentrified urban settings. The realty market has a marketing bias against older minorities and the disabled, so the bills help combat discrimination through expansion of housing voucher programs specifically for very low income families, including funding for emergency outreach, establishment of housing trust fund for shelters, and also technical assistance funds. Proposals such as HR 4237 will empower tenants to counter eviction proceedings; while HR 4311 would amend the Social Security Act to help with coverage of dental and vision care under Medicare.

Many of these bills have been tabled in Committee, however, the fact that they are introduced demonstrates that our Representatives are not, as pundits point out, completely out of touch with the people. Several bills that demonstrate this are HR 4237, Tenant Empowerment Act, which would strengthen the accountability of group homes by allowing withholding by the government of reimbursements. Meanwhile HR 3456 HOPE for HOMES Act and HR 4131 Better Care Better Jobs Act will fund climate-change preparatory training and strengthen community healthcare outreach. These rejuvenate hope that students and the unemployed can be empowered to help themselves with direct benefits for the community.

During the Committee Hearing neoconservative critics harp on the huge costs of expanding the continuum of care. For instance, Congressman Lance Gooden (Texas) used the term ‘homeless cartels’ to describe insider networks in which caseworkers at homeless nonprofit agencies will serve as chairs on private boards, enabling or developing potential conflicts of interests. Fudge conceded that small cities and rural communities need better access to technical assistance.

Nevertheless the interviewing during the last half hour pretty much allowed Secretary Fudge to demonstrate that she means business. Fudge wants a transformative housing policy that will allow the agency to address points of criticality such as rennovations, new constructions that truly allow residents to remain-in-place, encourage flexibility in zoning to allow more urban micro-neighborhoods that may accommodate, for instance, tiny-home blocks, and encourage power-saving retrofits for all home and building owners.

I will never allow privatization of public housing“—Secretary Fudge told Repr. Alma Adams of North Carolina at the Committee Hearing

Congressman Ritchie Torres (New York), who co-introduced the End Homelessness Act of 2021, asserts that truly affordable housing is needed and advocates public support for HR 4496 which will vastly increase the number of Section 8 vouchers available. Congressman Sean Casten (Illinois) pointed out that if truly Green Infrastructure were enacted for climate change, wouldn’t a whole-of-government approach be better? Massive investments now will avert the eventual humongous losses in national infrastructure and livelihoods later when disasters hit and recovery from climactic events are desperately needed.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York) emphasized the need to alleviate emergency rental assistance bottle-necks, especially at the state and local level, and that coordinating direct timely communication among and with such officials is critical. She hinted that the eviction moratorium might be extended, because surges in homelessness will create a new public health crisis of its own which could worsen the overall effects from the Covid pandemic.

No where is the need for better housing infrastructure better demonstrated than in Florida with several high-rise apartment building collapses recently. Congressman Al Lawson (Florida) voiced his support for more flexibility, legislative support, and financing to improve HUD resources, safer conditions in public housing, and allowing inspectors to do their job.

There is no doubt that an abrupt end to the moratorium with few protections in place will cause evictions to rise. Already in the national metro region, there is evidence that homeless encampments are materializing, but that the police tend to take disproportionate action whenever they believe that the camps are becoming ‘ensconced.’ Invisible People (YouTube) documents the conditions of the nation’s homeless through personal interviews; however, the local precincts merely follow orders and housing non-starts do not count.

Ample evidence indicates a capitalist society stooping to anything to maintain a ‘hot housing market’ with ‘rising construction starts’ while stigmatizing the needy. Shaming the poor is prevalent in the Far East, whether in Japan, China, Hong Kong, or Korea. For instance, while in the 70s Hong Kong had its share of permanent boat people, today there are curator videos of ‘cage homes.’ Once subsidized, concrete tenement buildings have suffered decades of neglect due to austerity measures. Needy families are now crowded into blocks long interconnected cavernous structures functioning almost as independent villages whose units literally consist of rooms subdivided into mini-units and built-upwards and outwards with ‘cage-homes.’ Each person pays to sublet maybe an 8 cubic meter cage and a room might fit about 6 cages which each person climbs into on a ladder.

Although not ideal, each poor person has an address, and older people need not shuffle along the streets of Hong Kong being elbowed about by the crowds. Inside the huge interlocking tenement buildings are samples of everything one needs for convenience; tiny grocery stores, barber shops, boutiques, shower stalls, etc. Volunteers in the cage-home commune might even serve as walking guides, security, fire brigade, caseworkers, translators, or tutors. Such a bizarre phenomenon has also taken place in New York City in which storage facilities are stealthily being rented and converted into micro-living quarters. Even worse are Las Vegas’s ‘mole people’ who pray that the flood never happens flushing out the giant storm drains they call home.

“I talk to tenants everywhere I go” —Secretary Fudge boasted to Repr. Ritchie Torres of New York

In his latest lecture circuit, Harvard minister, best-selling author, and political activist Chris Hedges ascribes the fate of America’s destiny today to years of ‘American Sadism.’ Nothing that has happened or is happening in our increasingly censored, militarized, myopic, consumerist society should surprise anyone since it is just ‘colonialism [that] has come home.’ However the Pulitzer-prize winning former New York Times journalist warns against getting our hopes up for many New Deal programs under President Joe Biden. We will not see much ending of corporate personhood, reversal in big military budget items, reduction in surveillance, enacting of immigration reform, or banning of lone children at detention camps.

The bipartisan deal on Build Back Better as is currently negotiated allows corporations a minimum corporate tax of 15%. Billionaire corporations pay very little because they use shell corporations, hide monies off-shore, sink their money into private nonprofits (which they own), or invest massive amounts into research and development. Hedges, who also teaches part-time in the jail-system, opines that too little will trickle down under Biden’s Build Back Better proposals, so much will be grabbed up as contracts by large corporations.

Indeed the housing nonprofit and development sectors has its counterparts: opaque entities that connect with slick law firms, absentee landlords, out-of-state property owners, accessory functionaries, astro-turfing lobbyists, data-crunching technocrats, urban grant silos, public-relations weaponizers, in-the-know opportunists, and diversionary experts—all may descend like swarms of locusts to consume the greatest chunks, placing bets even before the new legislations and predictable contracts are reeled off the printing presses.