When the media revealed Mitt Romney’s plan to eliminate
the federal agency in charge of affordable housing, it was the classic one-day news story. Instead of interviewing any of the seniors, disabled and low-income families impacted by such a move, the media went all out covering Ann Romney’s response at the same April 15 gathering to a political consultant’s claim that Ms.Romney “had never worked a day in her life.” That this exchange dominated the media for days while Mitt Romney’s plans for eliminating HUD were forgotten explains much about the current state of U.S. politics. The United States has the most homeless persons, and the most families living in unaffordable and/or unsuitable housing in the industrialized world, and yet their plight –even when linked to a major political news hook – is not deemed newsworthy. No wonder so many across the nation are taking to the street in May Day protests today.
Amidst a political news cycle when any misstep becomes major news, there is one critical exception: plans by Republicans to make life even worse for the poor and working-class.
That’s why the media did not press Mitt Romney on what the elimination of HUD funding for affordable housing would mean for millions of Americans dependent on such assistance. Instead of using Romney’s comments as a jumping point for exposing America’s record number of ill-housed, the media acted as if Romney never addressed the issue.
Many local affordable housing activists remain unaware of Romney’s plans to kill the agency that subsidizes low-cost housing. Most don’t diligently track Romney’s daily speeches, and could not protest anti-HUD comments that the media quickly forgot.
The Other America
Fifty years after Michael Harrington’s classic, The Other America
, the plight of tens of millions impoverished Americans remains far off the national political radar screen. And no area gets less media attention than the affordable housing crisis.
Since the onset of the foreclosure crisis, the millions of homeless or ill-housed Americans not facing foreclosure have been forgotten. Longstanding commitments to rebuild demolished public housing through Hope VI have been betrayed by Republican opposition, and the GOP has also opposed the economic stimulus benefits of building affordable housing.
While the Obama Administration supports increased federal affordable housing funding, the President has spent exactly zero political capital on this issue during his four years in office. He talks about foreclosures, but has not tried to galvanize public support to address the needs of millions of ill-housed and homeless Americans.
When the middle-class is in crisis, the problems faced by those at lower incomes are ignored. The media covers poverty when times are good for all but the poor, but in today’s world it is accounts of struggling college students and unemployed college grads that take precedence over the inability of working families to obtain housing they can afford.
In November 2000, I wrote an article for In These Times
titled “There’s No Place Like Home.” It described how the media and the presidential candidates were ignoring the nation’s housing crisis. Project Censored
ranked it as the 9th most censored story of 2001 and 2002.
I could write essentially the same story every year, as the media has not focused on the non-foreclosure affordable housing crisis for years. Mitt Romney and the Republican Party are not the only ones who don’t care how millions of low-income Americans live; those in the traditional media who decide what’s news have reached a similar conclusion.
Local Housing Activism
Despite the federal government’s shrinking commitment to affordable housing since the Reagan Era, people at the local level continue to find ways to fund low-cost housing. In San Francisco, a remarkably innovative approach to the long-term financing of affordable housing is emerging from Mayor Lee’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund program.
The great advantage of a Trust Fund over bond financing is that the latter runs out, often in only five years. The Trust Fund guarantees money for decades, ensuring a capital flow that helps generate private financing and investment.
While details are still being worked out, you can count on the Trust Fund program appearing on the November ballot. The final result will be something that all sectors of the city’s housing community – from upscale housing developers to small builders to nonprofit groups – will support.
But even San Francisco’s best efforts have not as yet completely dislodged all of the federal funding needed to fulfill the promises of the Hope VI program in the southeast section of the city. The lack of the promised rebuilt family housing has put a strain on the city’s ability to house low-income families, with the predictable result that some activists blame the Mayor rather than the Congressional Republicans refusing to fund Hope VI.
And that’s the genius of Romney’s planned elimination of HUD. Since Reagan plunged millions into homelessness and ill-housing with his draconian housing cuts in the 1981 budget, nearly all the blame for the resulting human misery is targeted at local mayors.
For example, I once advised Mayor Willie Brown to put the blame for inadequate housing money squarely on the feds. When he did, the media accused Brown of “passing the buck.”
A media that ignores Romney’s plans to eliminate HUD does not hesitate to steer blame for homelessness and the ill-housed toward big city mayors, who are overwhelmingly Democrats.
It’s not too late for activists to press Romney at campaign stops about his plans for housing the poor in the absence of HUD. The right kind of protests could finally force the media to cover the issue.
Randy Shaw is author of The Activist’s Handbook.