Mitt Romney suggested that Americans would be better off without a federal agency responsible for housing and urban development. I disagree, and here’s why. We still need the national housing goal, spelled out in the National Affordable Housing Act, that “every American family should be able to afford a decent home in a suitable environment.” The fact that we don’t meet this goal on any of its measures—affordable, decent, suitable, or universal—doesn’t mean that we should give up.
Having a national goal has meant many long debates about its real meaning, and we need a federal housing agency to be the ultimate authority to settle those debates. For example:
- Being able to afford housing means being able to buy other necessities after paying rent or mortgage. We need a federal housing agency because the meaning of affordability will continue to evolve, for example, as we address the joint costs of housing and transportation.
- Federal standards for a decent home have helped make houses safer and healthier and have yielded industry standards for building materials and house types (especially manufactured homes), helping build more efficient markets. Definitions and standards here are evolving for indoor air quality and energy efficiency—and we need a federal agency to broker those definitions.
- The federal goal of a suitable environment is perhaps best reflected in the Fair Housing Act, which requires that the federal government—led by HUD—actively promote racial residential integration. Here, too, debates continue. Should we define a “suitable” living environment based only on avoiding the most toxic situations, or on attaining excellent situations?
- The words “every American family” mean we need to go deep—to strive to reach everyone. Without that part of the goal, we would likely be worse off than we are now. But we’ve never had enough housing resources to meet all needs. Should we simply give up? Or should we expand our resources by looking beyond the HUD budget to what we spend on such needs as health, transportation, and homeland security?
Beyond words and definitions, we also need a federal agency that motivates and guides action. HUD’s many partners currently have either broad autonomy with little accountability or exacting accountability with too little autonomy. State and local actors need autonomy for many reasons, foremost because conditions vary so much across the country. But the flipside of such autonomy must be accountability—first for planning to meet the national housing goal, and then for moving closer to it.
Together, this means that as long as we have a national housing goal, which I hope we always will, we’ll need a national agency to help us get there. The “U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development” is as apt a name as I can think of for such an agency.