Whether by choice or chance, a recent Washington Post article highlights how easy it is to taint an entire portfolio of federal programs by highlighting problems at one.
The paper began a series May 15 on problems in HUD's HOME program. The article details examples of poor decision-making and a lack of accountability at what it describes as "the federal government's largest housing construction program for the poor."
Now, aside from the people who actually administer federal housing programs, who would doubt for a moment they are reading an indictment of public housing?
A major problem, of course, is that the article has nothing to do with the nation's public housing program, and there is no effort to distinguish HOME from the plethora of available HUD programs. To be clear, HOME provides block grants to local municipalities, who in turn work with non-profits and private developers to develop affordable housing. (As HUD points out, the article also does not paint a fair picture of the program.)
And whether accidentally or deliberately, the article implies that public housing is rife with the same kinds of problems -- through repeated references to undefined local housing agencies, an accompanying pictorial that includes public housing properties, and throw-away lines about past public housing problems -- that money is being wasted, and that people with unmet housing needs are being ignored.
That is simply not the case. Public housing is a multibillion dollar asset that is home to 2.2 million working families, seniors and people with disabilities. Over the last two decades, the single largest source of public investment in urban redevelopment has been through public housing's HOPE VI program. Research has consistently shown that entire neighborhoods have been transformed through HOPE VI, driving property taxes and local revenue up -- and driving crime rates down.
Not only is money not being wasted here, it is producing an excellent return on investment.
A recent report found that using $4 billion of Recovery Act funds invested in public housing capital projects, housing authorities renovated and developed nearly 380,000 sorely needed affordable housing units. Operating costs -- particularly for utilities -- will be lower in the future. That means a better use of tax dollars and less strain on scarce resources.
The report also found that:
• The economic impact of each $1.00 in direct public housing authority (PHA) stimulus spending results in an additional $2.12 of national indirect and induced economic activity for a total economic impact of $3.12.
• The $4 billion would generate nearly $12.5 billion in national economic activity if these findings are representative of the work completed by all 3,100 agencies.
• On average, every $1 million spent on Recovery Act capital projects created 26 jobs nationally, surpassing almost every other sector of the economy.
• The $4 billion would create around 104,000 jobs if the work being performed by these PHAs is representative of all 3,100 PHAs.
As HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said during our press conference announcing the report, "Any way you slice it, that's real bang for the buck. And that's smart government." (Note: this was not covered by the Washington Post.)
At a time when the demand for affordable housing is growing much faster than the supply, when budget cuts threaten already burdened programs, we need reporting that tells the entire story. No program is without problems and the media plays a key role bringing those to light. But to really inform and educate, stories would include information about what can and does work. We are facing big problems as a nation. It is important to know that there are solutions.