The White House’s budget blueprint proposes a $6.2 billion cut to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but buried in the proposal is an increase of $20 million for HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes (OLHCHH)—the only program receiving a boost.
The increase suggests some follow-through on HUD Secretary Carson’s stated interest in the links between housing and health. But the simultaneous cuts to HUD’s housing assistance programs, combined with reductions or elimination of other healthy housing and housing improvement programs, would keep many families in substandard, unhealthy homes.
According to the last American Healthy Homes Survey, over a fifth of homes (23.2 million) have one or more lead-based paint hazards. These homes are part of the older stock and are more likely to be occupied by low-income families.
How much will funding increase?
Funding for the OLHCHH has dropped since 2010.The proposed increase brings the budget closer to historical levels before the spur from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding in fiscal year (FY) 2009.
The reductions have led to fewer homes being treated because direct remediation is expensive. While 9,500 homes were made lead-safe in FY2005, this number dropped to 7,000 homes in FY2016.
Education and awareness campaigns run by local programs and direct hazard removal or treatment have helped produce demonstrable outcomes: the number of children under age 6 with elevated blood lead levels has been cut in half in the last decade.
Collaborating to create healthy housing
Part of the reason for HUD’s program success is the collaboration with other efforts in the federal government, efforts whose budgets are either decimated or unclear in the proposed budget. These combined efforts were referred to as one of the “10 great public health achievements” of the last decade.
For example, HUD works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, which supports direct blood lead testing and education campaigns. In the 2017 budget, this program received $16-17 million of the CDC’s $7 billion budget. The FY2018 budget is unclear, though the proposal seeks “to reform [the CDC] through a new $500 million block grant,” which could reduce funds for this purpose.
Another partner is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which supports the Lead Renovation, Repair, and Painting Rule. These funds—about $14 million—make sure there are trained and certified contractors capable of performing lead abatement and removal in homes. The EPA also monitors and enforces other household sources of lead, like water systems (as we saw failed in Flint, Michigan) and contaminated soils (like the Superfund site in East Chicago, Indiana). No significant changes in funds are proposed for financing the infrastructure improvements that could prevent lead poisoning and other household hazards, rather than respond once the damage is done.
Collective cuts to EPA programs in the FY2018 budget are drastic and blunt: a $129 million reduction for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance and elimination of more than 50 unspecified programs valued at $347 million that could include the Office of Environmental Justice and other community outreach and enforcement programs from which housing health issues can be identified.
Many other programs improve housing quality in ways that could affect household health, and these are also completely, partially, or implicitly on the chopping block:
- The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Weatherization program ($215 million) and the EPA and DOE’s Energy Star (about $57 million) that improve energy efficiency and indoor air quality for millions of Americans
- The Department of Health and Human Services’ Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program ($3.4 billion), which keeps poor, “energy insecure” families from unhealthy housing conditions
- The CDC’s Asthma Control Program, which tracks housing conditions among other health factors
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program ($90 million), whose funds reduce exposure to housing risks triggered by flooding, wind damage, and other hazards
Despite the extra funds, more families will end up in unhealthy housing
And of course, there are the other cuts to HUD. When 16 million people in need of housing assistance don’t receive it and when public housing authorities are denied $1.3 billion to maintain basic housing standards in thousands of units, families are forced to seek out whatever housing they can find, and this is almost always substandard, unhealthy housing. The proposed budget increase may, at best, directly abate lead in only 1,500 homes.
The proposed increase is the budgetary equivalent of giving a children’s vitamin to a cancer patient. The lead and healthy housing programs are clearly needed. But better housing for all Americans should still be the goal.