Failure to fund, failure to introduce legislation, failure to provide information, and failure to implement defined the government's approach to rural housing last year -- matched by housing advocates' failure to give up.
Year-end reviews generally cover events, but in 2012 the things that did NOT happen were more notable. Inaction certainly described the politics of affordable housing for the lowest income residents of rural America. A couple of the non-events listed below are positive, but far more are unfortunate.
1. Federal policymakers did not protect low-income people from funding cuts as Congress and the administration argued over the tax and spending decisions that comprised the “fiscal cliff.” More than 1,900 organizations nationwide joined the Strengthening America’s Values and Economy (SAVE) for All coalition’s statement of principles asking Congress to follow basic, humane concepts including “protect[ing] low- and moderate-income people in budget and deficit reduction proposals by opposing cuts in or the elimination of effective services, while supporting expansions necessary to respond to growing need.” Some lawmakers did exhibit concern for vulnerable people, but they did not prevail. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has predicted serious impacts on housing aid.
2. The Obama Administration did not support some important rural housing programs in its budget request for FY13. Congress did not agree with the cuts, nor did Congress pass appropriations bills to fund rural housing – or anything else – for the full fiscal year 2013. The budget proposed reducing funding for Section 502 direct mortgages and Section 523 self-help housing. It would have eliminated funding for USDA’s Section 515 rental housing program, HUD’s Rural Innovation Fund (an Administration initiative), and the Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program (SHOP). Fortunately, the continuing resolution that funds the government from October 1, 2012 to March 27, 2013 rejects the proposed changes and keeps the programs at FY12 funding levels – meaning that the Rural Innovation Fund, which received no appropriation in FY12, has none for the first part of FY13 either.
3. The National Housing Trust Fund, which would finance housing for the very lowest income renters, did not receive funding. The NHTF was authorized in 2008 but has never been funded.
4. Much-needed legislation to support preservation of rural rental housing was not introduced in Congress. Rural preservation bills were considered in the House in the last several Congresses but never introduced in the Senate. In March 2012, USDA staff told stakeholders the department had sent draft legislation to OMB for review, but the proposal never appeared.
5. USDA did not release a Notice of Funding Availability for Section 515 rental housing. A USDA email to congressional offices said the FY12 Section 515 funds would be used first for incentives to keep property owners in the program, and any remaining monies would be spent to rehabilitate inventory properties or to facilitate property sales. Agency staff have not yet provided information on how much of the program’s appropriation went to which purposes.
6. No long-term resolution was reached for the over 900 communities in danger of losing eligibility for USDA rural housing programs because of increased population or re-classification into metropolitan areas. After the 1990 and 2000 Censuses, Congress grandfathered eligibility for places in such situations. In 2012, Congress did not complete action on one-year or ten-year solutions. USDA did delay the effectiveness of the eligibility changes until March 27, 2013.
7. The new Rural Housing Stability Assistance Program at HUD was not implemented. Created in the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act of 2009, the program targets aid to rural places. HUD did implement HEARTH’s new definition of homelessness so that some categories of people who are not literally unsheltered are eligible for homeless program assistance, a needed improvement in rural places.
8. USDA did not provide clear information about the use of its Rental Assistance program. Section 521 offers project-based assistance to tenants in properties financed with USDA Section 515 rental loans or Section 514/516 farmworker housing funds. In the past, when Rental Assistance (RA) unit was no longer needed at one property, it was transferred to another property. In May 2011, and then again in an August 21, 2012 notice, USDA gave its field staff very different instructions, stating that “it is the intent of the National Office to retire recaptured RA units.” USDA staff have assured stakeholders that the agency is actually continuing to reuse all RA units, but have not provided data.9. GAO released a report on overlap among housing programs that did not recommend moving the USDA housing programs to HUD. Advocates believe the rural housing programs should remain at USDA and in Housing Assistance: Opportunities Exist to Increase Collaboration and Consider Consolidation the Government Accountability Office acknowledged their reasoning, discussing similarities among certain programs but not recommending agency consolidation.
10. Housing advocates, including those focused on rural housing, did not give up. The local, regional, statewide, and national groups that care about providing decent, affordable housing for all residents of rural America are still working toward that goal.
Leslie Strauss is Senior Policy Analyst for the Housing Assistance Council. This article first appeared in Rooflines, http://www.rooflines.org/, the weblog of Shelterforce — the nation’s oldest continually published housing and community development magazine.