Sometimes it’s helpful to look at the country as a tree. Not Jefferson’s tree of liberty — I’m not ready to pour the blood of tyrants onto the ground quite yet — but rather a tree where each branch is a different ideal. Racial equality, women’s rights, LGBT rights, immigrants’ rights, things like that are the various branches of the tree that makes a just society. At the roots are some of the more basic issues — food, shelter, education. All of those things can sometimes feel like the roots of this great tree, and when they prosper, we prosper, and when we prosper, those branches grow more and more healthy. We often tell ourselves that with the right education, we can over time heal the damaged roots and thereby help the tree flower. Education leads to knowledge and knowledge, as they say, is power.
But I’m not here to talk about education. I’m here to talk about one of the other basics — shelter. Because one of the country’s more integral departments, one that affects millions of poor Americans, is under direct assault right now, and it’s happening in a fashion that we never saw coming. Perhaps one of the least glamorous sounding branches of the government is the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and it’s because of that lack of glamour that this is happening somewhat under the radar. Sure, you’ve read about it — Ben Carson, an incompetent moron who somehow managed to earn a medical degree, is the new HUD Secretary. It’s been a national joke for several weeks now. But it’s important to realize just how much his appointment, and the subsequent actions of Carson, Trump, and HUD, are going to affect our future.
In short, if they maintain the course they’re on? We’re fucked. I mean shockingly fucked.
In the past week, two major news items have sprung up that could take us further down the road to the aforementioned fuckage. One, Lynne Patton is expected to be named the nominee to lead the New York regional HUD office. This is important for one simple reason — she’s a woefully unqualified toady, who is being appointed solely because she’s loyal. She is possibly even less qualified than Carson, which is saying something given that Carson’s only qualifications appear to be that he’s black, grew up poor, and will lick the boots of anyone who can give him access or power. Patton is a Trump loyalist who has absolutely zero housing experience, but has the good fortune of once working for Eric Trump’s foundation, and helped plan his wedding.
Let’s go over that again: a woman with zero housing experience, who helped Trump’s son plan his fucking wedding, is potentially the nominee to run the regional HUD office for one of the largest urban areas in the country. This is akin to me being nominated to run the EPA because I donated to Greenpeace. The only thing more bananas than this would be if someone like Rick Perry were named Energy Sec — oh, fuck.
Anyway, that’s part one of this fiasco. Part two has to do with Trump’s proposed budget, which, according to The Washington Post, calls for sharp cuts to housing assistance. Here’s the money quote:
President Trump’s budget calls for sharply reducing funding for programs that shelter the poor and combat homelessness — with a notable exception: It leaves intact a type of federal housing subsidy that is paid directly to private landlords.
One of those landlords is Trump himself, who earns millions of dollars each year as a part-owner of Starrett City, the nation’s largest subsidized housing complex. Trump’s 4 percent stake in the Brooklyn complex earned him at least $5 million between January of last year and April 15, according to his recent financial disclosure.
Now, that second paragraph is interesting, and once again results in one of the literal hundreds of conflicts of interest between Trump’s presidency and his business dealings. But don’t focus on it — it’s ultimately a misdirect that is going to take us away from the real issue. To be quite honest, I doubt that the fact that Trump’s building won’t suffer from these cuts even factored into the decision making process. This is a shot fired in a war that has been going on for years, only now it’s coming to fruition.
Here’s a bit of inside baseball to help us get to the heart of why this is such a massive problem:
There are two basic low-income housing programs in the United States: the Section 8 program, and the Public Housing program. There are dozens of sub-programs within those two very large umbrellas, and some states, like my own, also have their own smaller versions of each. But Section 8 and Low Income Public Housing (LIPH, to keep things shorter) are the two main ones. Section 8, also known as the Voucher program, has always been a darling of both sides of the political spectrum. Under this program, low-income families receive a subsidy that allows them to live in a regular, market-rent apartment for an income-based rent. Essentially, if you live in an apartment with a rent of $2000, you pay roughly 30% of your adjusted monthly income for rent, and whatever is left of that two grand is paid out by the government in subsidy. Sometimes, those apartments are designed specifically for low-income renters, but still owned privately. In fact, I work for one such development. It’s owned and managed by a private company, but serves specifically elderly and disabled persons who make less than 50% of the area median income. There’s a market rent attached to each apartment, but the residents never pay more than 30% of their income, and HUD picks up the balance. These are called “Project-Based” or “Multifamily” Section 8 developments. The other version is known as a mobile voucher, wherein you still have that voucher, but you can use it anywhere. Literally any apartment in the country (whose rent falls under a set amount based on region) becomes accessible to you — you still pay that 30%, the government still pays the rest. Chances are, if you’ve lived in low- to moderate-income apartments, you’ve likely had a neighbor who has benefited from this program.
The second, Public Housing, is a little different. This is housing that is government-owned and government-managed, usually via agencies called Housing Authorities. Every major (and most minor) city has a Housing Authority, which essentially takes HUD money and funnels it into the management of public housing. The public housing program is also what’s conventionally — and derogatorily — known as “the projects”. Yeah, you’ve seen The Wire. Back in the day, they were usually high-rises, enabling us to cram a large number of very poor people into as small a space as possible. Build up, not out, was the philosophy, thus preventing poor people from taking over too much of the city’s landscape. Public housing is where the bulk of the low-income housing stigma comes from. Cities like Chicago and New York once had legendarily bad neighborhoods dotted with low-income housing developments, and they’ve always been easy political targets. People blame the projects for crime, for lack of education, for urban blight. But of course, just like shitty schools, shitty neighborhoods don’t exist in a vacuum — they happen because the money and resources to improve them do not exist. I’ve worked in low-income housing in a number of cities up and down the east coast, for going on 20 years now, and the one common thing is always money. The lack of money is why public housing suffers. And when the home you live in is shit, and the neighborhood you live in is shit, and the schools you go to are shit, guess what? You don’t have a lot of options ahead of you.
For decades now, the government has waged a mostly-silent war against low-income housing across the nation. The focus of that has always been public housing, and the Section 8 program has always been popular. It’s popular because there’s the appearance of independence — poor people are renting regular apartments! It’s also popular because it’s often the housing of choice for low-income seniors, one of the country’s more powerful voting blocks. It’s popular because it hides our poor within middle class neighborhoods, like thorns painted red. And frankly, it’s popular because it’s cheaper. Handing out slips of paper and telling you to go find an apartment is far less expensive than the brick-and-mortar funding necessary to build and manage public housing. Better to let private companies (yes, like mine) build them and pass the subsidy on to them. The thing is, though, that public housing serves a vital need. There aren’t enough companies like mine, willing to invest private dollars into low-income housing, even if it turns them a profit. There aren’t enough private landlords out there to take (or willing to take — there’s a fair amount of discrimination against voucher holders by landlords) vouchers for every low-income renter. But the government hates public housing, because it costs precious dollars that they could be spending on fucking fighter jets or bunker bombs or corporate bailouts.
So let’s bring this all back together. The GOP war on housing has been going on for decades. This time, it’s just that they’re firing higher caliber bullets. They’ve got the House, the Senate, and the presidency, so they’re coming after the programs they’ve always hated, and they’re doing it with venom. The housing programs that are under fire are going to suffer enormously, and it’s a program that is already under immense stress. Having managed public housing myself, I can tell you that it’s an often-impossible job, managing a building and the needs of your residents on the barest of funding. Managers of these buildings face terrible decisions daily — what can I fix now, what can I put off for next year in the hopes that we can afford it then and in the hopes that no one will get hurt. Cannibalizing parts out of broken appliances, faking their way through federal inspections, being forced to choose what potentially life-threatening problems we can maybe postpone fixing — these are all routine issues that happen because there’s no money. In the years before the Obama administration, the HUD budget for low-income housing was cut by 30%. That’s a staggering cut, and the idea that Trump is seriously considering cutting it further is terrifying.
Because there’s only one real goal to these cuts — to make the poor poorer. There is no other endgame. The developments will suffer, they’ll be forced to close down, driving the poor onto the streets in search of vouchers that won’t be there. The average Housing Authority waiting list right now is between three and five years. That’s three to five years before you might find safe, sustainable housing. Until then? Have fun sleeping at your friend’s house with your three kids, or in your car, or on the street. These are all stories I’ve heard. These are all people I’ve had to turn away because there just. isn’t. enough. help. And now we’re going to take even more of that help away. We’re going to overcrowd shelters, we’re going to flood cities with even more poverty. Which will affect schools (which are also probably going to lose funding). Which will drive up crime rates, drive up drug usage, drive down property values. Donald Trump once said “our inner cities are a disaster”. That’s a goddamn lie. Our inner cities are places where, with the right care and money and attention, people could thrive and grow. Poor people could learn and break the cycle that’s been plaguing them for so many years. We could push money into better housing, better homes, better schools, better support systems.
But instead, we’re going to slash them to pieces. We’re going to increase drug usage so that we can increase incarceration rates. We’re going to decrease education, so we don’t know how to make the country better. This will adversely affect minorities, immigrants, poor families — all the groups that the GOP hates because they tend to vote against them. The story here isn’t Trump’s buildings or the buildings that will keep their funding — it’s the thousands of buildings and millions of people who will find themselves worse off than they’ve ever been. The story isn’t the story of Carson and Patton, two unqualified idiots suddenly charged with running a vast and vital bureaucracy — it’s the life-endangering decisions that such incompetence and cronyism will lead to. Our inner cities aren’t a disaster, but they sure as hell will be if we stay the course. We’re going to tear out the roots of the tree and watch as it falls, clucking tongues and wringing hands, blaming the poor for being poor and not pulling themselves up, while we shove our hands in our pockets when they reach out for help.