The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) used to be one of the largest federal bureaucracies. Founded in 1965, by the mid-1970s it came to enjoy a budget second only to the Department of Defense. In theory, HUD has the power to be a revolutionary agent in American society, with the tools necessary to both challenge ironclad residential segregation and offer relief from the low-income housing market. Considering those prerogatives, and myriad other duties, it makes sense that the agency could be a behemoth. Perhaps that’s why Ronald Reagan, friend to unregulated markets of any kinds, sought to humble the agency. HUD never really recovered from the 1980s, when its budget was slashed from $26 billion to $8 billion. Starting with his administration, the agency budget and its corresponding possibilities for action shrank dramatically.
Going into the Reagan years, HUD was politically vulnerable. After a cavalcade of negative press about public housing, and several high profile fights over its expansion into majority white communities, this program—and other affordable housing efforts—were attacked as ineffectual relics of the mid-20th-century liberal consensus. (HUD’s efforts to enforce the 1968 Fair Housing Act were rarely robust enough to spur a comparable backlash.) Politicians in both parties largely abandoned an expansive vision of its goals, leading to market-oriented programs like Bill Clinton’s HOPE VI, which substantially shrank the number of publicly subsidized affordable housing units being offered.
Many commentators have noted the parallels between Donald Trump’s appointment of Ben Carson to Reagan’s disastrous appointment of Samuel Pierce, Jr., who blew his eight years as HUD chief binge-watching soap operas and permitting his aides to dole out millions in illegal subsidies to real estate consultants. In appointing Pierce, the administration seemed similarly less interested in targeting HUD than in allowing it to subside into lassitude. (Reagan himself often failed to recognize Pierce, greeting him in a 1981 White House reception as “Mr. Mayor.”) There is little reason to doubt that Carson will similarly seek to scale back the agency’s ambitions: After all, he described the Obama administration’s highly technical Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule as “experimenting with failed socialism.”
But Carson isn’t the main threat to HUD’s mandates to fight segregation and expand access to affordable housing. Though Pierce allowed ineptitude and corruption to flower at HUD, the disaster was remediable. Far more damaging to an expansive vision of HUD’s mission, today or in the future, will be the sweeping budget cuts that are a central aspect of Paul Ryan’s vision for America. Trump offered few substantive statements on housing policy and, in contrast with Reagan, is entering office with staggeringly high disapproval ratings. Ryan’s policy preferences are widely expected to set the domestic policy agenda in the year ahead.
There is little doubt that if Ryan gets his way, further cuts to HUD can be expected. And the Republican Congress he leads will gladly finish the job Reagan started 30 years ago. Over the course of Reagan’s years in office, HUD’s budget authority fell by 70 percent. Between 1977 and 2012 the agency lost over half of its funding. As a direct result, only five million families receive federal housing assistance today—a quarter of those eligible for assistance. Unlike food, heating, or medical assistance, federal housing aid is not automatically available to anyone whose income falls below the poverty line. America would still have a housing crisis if Reagan hadn’t been elected in 1980, but it probably wouldn’t have the vicious size of the one we face today.
A 2004 estimate from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows that if the federal government had continued funding housing assistance at pre-Reagan levels, at least 15 million more people would have enjoyed housing supports. Instead, those millions of Americans—many more, since the study was conducted—are going without housing support in a time of stagnant wages and skyrocketing housing costs. Last December, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that 11 million households are paying more than half their income on rent.
All those statistics and massive numbers hide the lived reality of what Reagan-era budget cuts, and HUD’s massively reduced capacity, mean for actual poor Americans. If a family spends half their income, if not more, on rent, that means they are extremely vulnerable to getting kicked out of their home. In his groundbreaking book Evicted, Matthew Desmond showed the ramifications in painstaking detail. People who are insecure in their housing become vulnerable in every other aspect of their lives too. Children perform worse in school, adults have a harder time at work, families become less invested in communities. Suicide rates are correlated with eviction, as are higher levels of crime.
The federal government is the only institution with the potential power and resources to end this nightmare. But for all intents and purposes HUD is still living in the Reagan era. Although the first Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations appointed legitimate stewards to helm the agency, the iron law of post-1970s American politics remained in place: once a social program is cut it doesn’t come back. Funding for integral programs HUD oversees, like the public housing capital fund and Community Development Block Grants, which respectively maintain mid-century projects and provide local governments with flexible funds for housing, have fallen for the last 15 years.
What a presidential appointee can do in this context is limited. Obama arguably took the progressive potential of HUD more seriously than any President since Lyndon Johnson. Although public housing is a moldering shell of what it once was, his attempts to use the private market to shore up these New Deal ruins at least gave tenants a degree of protection. By contrast, under HOPE VI, the Clinton administration did not require one-for-one replacements of “revitalized” public housing complexes, which were destroyed and replaced by mixed-income projects with dramatically fewer units for the poor. Obama’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule represents the first serious attempt in decades to force local jurisdictions to grapple with segregation and its attendant ills. Nearly every other presidential administration studiously ignored the 1968 Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Act. (The exception being, as Nikole Hannah-Jones documented in ProPublica, George Romney’s earnest effort to force suburbs to integrate using the law—which Nixon quickly squashed.) But there are serious limits to what even this relatively progressive administration was able to achieve without devoting a lot more funding to the agency. Take the Choice Neighborhoods program, which offered grants to local jurisdictions to incentivize affordable housing plans that paid attention integrated themselves into the larger neighborhood and community. This marked a serious and positive break from previous policy, which often just viewed housing projects as islands apart from the rest of the community. But given HUD’s tight budget, Choice Neighborhoods received less than half a billion in funding, so its effects barely registered.
From what we can tell of the budgetary plans of Paul Ryan and Donald Trump thus far, even universal social assistance programs like Medicare and Social Security seem to be on the chopping block. Most HUD programs have suffered even under President Obama. Housing assistance has been hit hard by the sequester. Community Block Development Grants (CDBGs), which helps with repairs and basic maintenance in low-income communities, has disappeared: the city of Philadelphia received $97.8 million in today’s dollars in 2001, and now receives $39 million, a nearly 60 percent decline. The budget for public housing construction has lost 25 percent of its inflation-adjusted value since 2001, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. All of these will shrink further, and fast.
Even if Carson defies expectations and ends up being an impressively competent steward of HUD, the agency will continue to be a husk of its former self. Congress is where the action will be and the Republican Party of Paul Ryan is still Ronald Reagan’s GOP, only more so. And therefore the future of HUD holds more of the same—only more so.