Federal Programs That Foster Equitable Communities Face Uncertain Future

Just two weeks shy of his symbolic first 100 days in office, President Trump's plan to promote equity remains largely elusive.

Though he has made it clear that he does not support federal community development programs, neither the President nor his administration have clarified how they intend to address federal support for equity through efforts like Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, place-based initiatives like Promise Zones, or an infrastructure package.

One of three legislative priorities for APA in 2017, promoting social equity and expanded access to economic and social opportunities for all is at the core of good planning. APA believes the federal government should play a large role in ensuring communities have access to the resources and tools needed to make the best equity decisions for the local needs of their communities.

Organizational Barriers

Tools previously available to communities to create equity face still face an uncertain future in the new administration, nearly three months into the President's term. A slow confirmation process of cabinet-level nominees likely has hindered the policy development process.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson was confirmed only on March 2, and the former neurosurgeon, who has no housing or government experience, is still conducting a national listening tour to get a better understanding of the programs under his jurisdiction.

Additionally, many deputy secretaries and assistant secretaries have yet to be confirmed. Currently, HUD does not have any nominees for the deputy secretary or assistant secretary positions. The lack of staff leadership is likely a huge barrier for the new secretary and creates many internal problems within the department.

The delay of the President's full FY 2018 budget until May is also creating uncertainty of his policy positions.

The presidential budget proposal is a purely political document that holds no force of law, but it does outline the policy goals and priorities of the administration for each department and agency within the government. The "skinny budget" released in March did give some hints of where the President would like to cut larger programs that contribute to equitable communities, but the smaller programs with significantly less funding are still a question mark.

Proposed Disinvestment in Federal Community Development

In his "skinny budget" proposal, the President made clear his opposition to the federal government providing community development resources for localities. The budget proposal calls for the total elimination of the Community Development Block Grant program, claiming:

"The Federal Government [sic] has spent over $150 billion on this block grant since its inception in 1974, but the program is not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results. The Budget devolves community and economic development activities to the State and local level, and redirects Federal resources to other activities."

Similarly, the President's budget also proposes the elimination of the HOME Investment Partnerships program and the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, again emphasizing that "State [sic] and local governments are better positioned to serve their communities based on local needs and priorities."

These programs make up the core of federal community development investments, and the loss of this funding for communities would be catastrophic. Targeted at low- to moderate-income residents, CDBG and HOME are critical to ensuring that communities have resources to bring opportunity to areas of poverty.

APA is fighting to preserve CDBG, HOME, and Choice Neighborhoods, and is joining forces with other partners in Washington like the National Community Development Association, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Counties, and the National League of Cities.

Questions About the Future of Place-Based, Collaborative Initiatives

Facing a push from Congress towards austerity, former President Obama also launched several place-based initiatives that focused less on direct funding and more on providing technical assistance and other resources.

Programs like the Promise Zones and Strong Cities, Strong Communities were cross-agency efforts aimed at helping communities maximize federal resources and providing expertise to help communities better coordinate efforts to revitalize their communities. These initiatives were hugely successful, yet there is no word from the President or his administration whether they will continue to focus on these programs.

Additionally, the future of the Prosperity Playbook remains unclear.

A joint effort between HUD, APA, the National League of Cities, Enterprise Community Partners, and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Prosperity Playbook examined the issue of economic mobility and housing affordability through the lens of five communities. HUD facilitated meetings in Atlanta, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Denver, and San Francisco, bringing together diverse stakeholders from each region to discuss the ways in which they've successfully improved access to affordable housing, advanced the economic future of their area, and ways in which they need assistance.

The conversation didn't end with the meetings with the cities. In November at the National League of Cities conference in Pittsburgh, HUD facilitated another meeting with a broader range of cities, and in March, the National League of Cities hosted a similar conversation.

Case studies were identified through those meetings and detailed in an online toolkit to help communities across the country identify best practices that can be applied locally.

APA is working with its nonprofit Prosperity Playbook partners and with HUD to determine the future of this important effort.

Is Housing and a Focus on Equity a Component of Infrastructure?

Another big question mark is the infrastructure package that the President proposed on the campaign trail and has identified as a major priority since assuming office.

Few details of what the President's vision for a package would look like, though he has said he would like to see an emphasis placed on tax credits and public-private partnerships. Additionally, a document was leaked that included a list of 50 projects the President would like to see included, which were largely highway, water, and transit projects.

The timeline of an infrastructure package is also unclear. Administration officials have said that infrastructure isn't likely to be address until next year, though Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao recently commented that they plan to have a legislative proposal soon.

APA is working to ensure that equity and public engagement are essential components of any infrastructure package considered by Congress.

Mixed Signals on Fair Housing

Fair housing and the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule is essential to helping localities plan and create equitable communities. Though the President and HUD Secretary Ben Carson have both voiced disapproval of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, this opposition has yet to solidify in implemented or proposed policy.

Then-Republican presidential candidate Carson detailed his strong opposition to President Obama's AFFH rule in an op-ed article in July 2015. However, in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee in January, HUD Secretary nominee Carson supported the principles of fair housing, while still criticizing the rule.

"We have people sitting around a desk in Washington, D.C., and deciding how things should be done," Carson said during his confirmation hearing. "I don't have any kind of problem with affirmative action or at least integration, but I do have a problem with people on high dictating it when they have no idea what's going on."

Neither AFFH nor fair housing were addressed in the President's skinny budget, though it is possible that the full budget will call for an elimination of funding for the purposes of implementing the rule. Additionally, members of Congress have introduced legislation that would nullify the rule, and it is possible the issue will arise during the FY 2018 appropriations process.

In April, APA joins other fair housing stakeholders in celebrating Fair Housing Month. Help APA support the principles of fair housing and the AFFH rule by sending a letter to your members of Congress opposing the legislation to eliminate it.

Top image: Department of Housing and Urban Development headquarters building in Washington, D.C. Photo by Flickr user Tim Evanson (CC BY-SA 2.0).

About the Author
Tess Hembree is policy manager at Advocacy Associates.

April 12, 2017

By Tess Hembree