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Dems' cause is tempered by political realities

During the 12 years that Republicans ran the House, their leaders didn't pay much attention to affordable-housing activists. But now that Democrats took over the House in November, their leaders affordable-housing activists.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

During the 12 years that Republicans ran the House, their leaders didn't pay much attention to affordable-housing activists. Despite soaring rents and complaints of a deepening affordability crisis, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) told his conference that he didn't want to see housing bills on the floor. He thought housing programs were unreformed welfare -- and they competed for the same pot of money in an annual funding bill as his beloved NASA.

But now that Democrats took over the House in November, their leaders are affordable-housing activists. Liberals Barney Frank (Mass.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.) run the two panels overseeing housing policy after agitating for years, without success, for increased government rent assistance. They came to office promising to pass the first major housing legislation since the early 1990s.

Last month, the House passed their bill, a measure to address the housing shortages that have festered on the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. After the storm wiped out 82,000 rental units in New Orleans, DeLay blocked a housing bill from Richard H. Baker (R-La.) because, sources said, the majority leader did not consider Baker a "team player." But Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), now speaker of the House, campaigned on Katrina inaction -- a prime example, she told audiences last fall, of the "do-nothing Congress" -- and vowed a fast reversal. The resulting Democratic bill includes several bold precedents, including a "right to return" for all displaced hurricane victims and "one-for-one replacement" for all demolished public housing units.

Democratic leaders say the Katrina bill -- which has yet to come up for a vote in the Senate -- is just a beginning. They hope to create a huge affordable-housing trust fund, restrict predatory lending, expand rent subsidies and tax credits for low-income housing, and push the federal government back into apartment construction.

"It's night and day," said Michael Kane, an affordable-housing advocate in Boston. "The atmosphere has totally changed."

But with housing -- as with higher-profile issues such as global warming and Iraq -- the new congressional leaders are trying to balance their ideas of what is desirable with their assessments of what is fiscally and politically possible during the Bush administration. So they are pushing low-cost measures that many Republicans can support, while promising their liberal base they will do more later.

"Everything we do is a political calculation; we're constantly thinking about what can become law," said Frank, the acerbic new chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. "We're interested in getting practical results."

On the Katrina bill, that meant making deals beyond the Democrats' liberal constituencies -- and the sponsors' own inclinations. Republicans were allowed to offer amendments, and one barring felons from public housing passed over the opposition of Democratic leaders. Similarly, in an effort to ensure bipartisan support and a presidential signature, Frank quietly killed three Democratic amendments that would have subsidized tens of thousands of families who lost homes in Katrina, although he relented on one of them. And he berated one activist who urged him to do more.

Still, housing activists are delighted to have like-minded "housers" in charge. They finally get to meet with leadership and provide wish lists to staff. And they have serious wishes: Over the past two decades, as the population has increased and rents have skyrocketed, the number of federally assisted apartments has not budged. Only 1 in 4 families eligible for subsidies receives them, and half of all "working poor" families spend more than half their income on rent. Despite the rising rate of homeownership, advocates say the price for decent shelter is still the primary obstacle to the American dream, more burdensome than the costs of health insurance, gasoline or taxes.

But after years of battling their enemies, some progressives are concerned their friends will take them for granted.

"The big question is whether the Democrats are really committed to change, or whether they're just making political statements," said Barbara Sard, a housing activist with the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

* * *

Consequences of elections
Pelosi likes to say that elections have consequences. That was abundantly clear when Financial Services' housing subcommittee held its first hearing on the Katrina bill in a packed New Orleans auditorium.

The five Democratic congressmen in attendance included one Latino and four African Americans, among them the embattled William J. Jefferson (D-La.), who is not a member of the panel but received a special invitation. Before the election, Pelosi had yanked Jefferson off the Ways and Means Committee when FBI agents found $90,000 in cash in his freezer; after the election, she put him on the Homeland Security Committee to ride herd on FEMA. In an interview in early March, Jefferson said he had met with Pelosi three times in the preceding six weeks to discuss Hurricane Katrina.

Holding the gavel at the hearing was the fiery Waters, who is probably best known for blaming the crack epidemic on the CIA. "I want to tell you all how lucky we are to have Maxine chairing this committee!" Jefferson declared.

"We're in Mr. Jefferson's home town -- can't forget that!" Waters replied.

But the hearing was no partisan set piece; Waters and her panel grilled Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) as relentlessly as they had grilled Bush administration officials. Waters asked Blanco blistering questions about Louisiana's troubled "Road Home" program and pressured her to get rid of its contractor.

"Donald Trump, baby!" one tenant shouted in approval. "Bring 'em to the boardroom and fire 'em!"

Waters also picked apart a Nagin aide who insisted -- despite a chorus of angry jeers -- that most displaced residents did not want to return. Under her prodding, the aide acknowledged that he had no idea what most displaced residents wanted and had no plan to get them into decent homes. "We need to work on that," he said.

At the same time, Waters pledged to reverse several Bush administration policies. When local officials complained about the requirement that local jurisdictions pay 10 percent of the cost of some FEMA projects -- a requirement that was waived after 1992's Hurricane Andrew and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- Waters promised that the Democratic Congress would waive it. When state officials complained that FEMA red tape was holding up $1.2 billion, Waters promised to free up the cash.

Waters is still a firebrand -- she's a leader of the Out of Iraq caucus -- but in New Orleans, she repeatedly praised the two Republican members of the subcommittee who were at the hearing, Judy Biggert (Ill.) and Randy Neugebauer (Tex.). She shushed the crowd when it booed Neugebauer's suggestion that it might make sense to demolish housing projects damaged during Katrina.

"I've found she's delightful to work with," Biggert, the ranking minority member of the subcommittee, said later. "It's been very different than I expected."

The most contentious issue at the hearing was the Bush administration's plan to tear down several huge low-income projects and redevelop them as mixed-income developments. Many low-income renters believe "redevelopment" means "gentrification," and in New Orleans, previous redevelopments have reduced low-income housing. So Waters called for a moratorium on demolition until displaced residents could return to participate in the planning.

"Can we all agree that everyone who wants to come back should be allowed to come back?" she asked.

The crowd erupted in cheers.

"And can we all agree that redevelopment isn't necessarily bad if it's done right?"

This time, the crowd was silent.

But overall, the audience seemed pleased that Democrats were making recovery from Katrina a priority. "This is about action," Jefferson said. "We're going to keep our commitments."

The House bill would release the frozen $1.2 billion, increase oversight of Road Home, authorize new housing subsidies to offset all subsidized apartments destroyed by Katrina, and require the federal government to replace public housing units it demolishes in New Orleans. In its recent Iraq funding bill, the House waived the requirement on local jurisdictions for federal projects.

At a White House meeting in February, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) had urged President Bush to eliminate the cost share. Clyburn, a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, is Pelosi's point man on Gulf Coast relief, and he left that meeting infuriated by the president's unwillingness to make a commitment. Clyburn almost forgot that he had the power to do something about it himself. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) reminded him: "You're the majority whip. Why don't you put up a bill, and I'll schedule it?"

Which is exactly what happened.

* * *

'A very high priority'
A few days after Waters held court in New Orleans, Frank held court in Washington at the National Low Income Housing Coalition's annual conference. He was clearly among friends, and he told them Pelosi had made housing "a very high priority." Frank had lots of good news for activists such as Lucinda Flowers of the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative, which is counting on tax credits for low-income housing to help rebuild the city.

Flowers said to Frank: "My question is about the tax credits --"

"They will be extended," he interrupted.

"That's what I needed to hear," she said.

Frank is best known nationally not for his gruff demeanor or his imposing intelligence, but for his homosexuality; Republicans often raised the specter of "Chairman Barney Frank" with conservative voters. Although Frank is a liberal, he is also a capitalist. One of his top goals on Financial Services is to prove those are not contradictory labels. "We've been on the defensive," he told the coalition. "We're going to get off the defensive, but a little slower than I'd like."

Frank's staff has asked housing advocates for lists of policies they would like changed, with an emphasis on changes that will not cost money. He told the coalition's members that if they want federal dollars for low-income renters, "the single most important thing you can tell Congress is: End the war in Iraq."

That is why the Katrina bill focused primarily on giving local agencies more flexibility to use money that had already been allocated and on increasing oversight, rather than on expanding the federal role or creating new programs. Frank believed most of the Republicans on his committee would support a modest bill but nothing grandiose.

Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.) had more ambitious goals. Green took Katrina personally -- as a native of New Orleans who watched his home town drown, as a Houstonian who represents thousands of evacuees, and as an African American. So he sent Frank three amendments, one for nearly $1 billion in housing for Texas and Alabama, one to create 25,000 new subsidized apartments along the Gulf, and one to approve long-term rent-subsidy vouchers for all evacuees who had temporary FEMA vouchers or who lived in FEMA trailers.

But the night before his committee debated the bill, Frank removed two of Green's amendments and whittled the 25,000 apartments to 4,500. After listening to the objections of his committee's top Republican, Spencer Bachus (Ala.), Frank had concluded that Green's proposals were too expensive and controversial to become law; the 4,500 apartments stayed because a similar amendment proposed by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) had slipped through the Senate last year before getting deleted by House Republicans.

Green said he trusted Frank's political judgment, even though he was disappointed by the decision, but some affordable-housing advocates were deeply disappointed.

Sheila Crowley, the head of the low-income-housing coalition, had introduced Frank at her conference as one of the affordable-housing community's best friends. But sources said that when she called to push for Green's amendments, Frank read her the riot act. In an interview, Frank pointed out that even the 4,500 units would represent the first major federal investment in new affordable housing since Republicans seized Congress in 1994.

"I was shocked when people complained," he said. "We haven't done any of this in 12 years. . . . All the reasonable people in the Gulf were very happy with this bill."

Quite a few Republicans were happy with it, too. There were some party-line votes on amendments, but a proposal by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) to deny aid to Katrina victims who do not have jobs or perform significant community service -- Frank called it "the mean amendment" -- had little support.

And when Republicans accused the Democrats of using Katrina to create new rent-subsidy programs, Frank said that although he believes America needs more rent subsidies, he would reshape the bill to make sure most of its subsidies would disappear when Katrina victims no longer needed them. "We'll split the difference," he said.

In the end, the committee approved the bill 50 to 16.

"From a legislative standpoint, it was a model of how the parties ought to come together," Bachus said. "Each side gave a bit, and it was a better bill in the end result."

* * *

But that was not quite the end result. After the committee vote, Crowley and other advocates met with Pelosi, Hoyer and Frank. Frank ultimately agreed to allow a floor vote on Green's most ambitious amendment, a proposal to offer long-term rent-subsidy vouchers to as many as 120,000 low-income families with temporary vouchers or FEMA trailers who could lose their assistance by September.

On March 20, the House passed Green's amendment on a largely party-line vote. Contrary to Frank's fears, the amendment did not drain Republican support for the bill, which passed 302 to 125. "We've done more in two months than they did in two years," Frank crowed. "And there's more to come."

That is what Hensarling is afraid of. At the start of an hour-long interview, he warned that Democrats were returning to their liberal roots, shaking down taxpayers to throw money at the poor. He said they would be unable to resist the "12 years of pent-up demand" for big-government responses to housing issues. But he later acknowledged that Pelosi and Frank were not going nearly as far as he had expected.

"I think there's a concerted effort on the speaker's part not to let Democrats act like Democrats," he said, with a hint of admiration.

It is true that housing advocates are not getting everything they want. Joseph Rich, director of housing programs for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, says that has caused a fair amount of grumbling. But he said that after years of waiting, most advocates understand that they cannot expect instant entree to the promised land.

"We've turned a corner," Rich said. "We've been losing ground for years, and we finally have hope."