With 8,000 homeowners hit by foreclosure each day, legislation to meet the crisis ought to be high on the Capitol Hill agenda. But fighters for decent, affordable housing say the Bush administration and Republican lawmakers are blocking action.
“By all accounts, the federal response to the foreclosure crisis has been tepid,” said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “The Senate works at a very, very slow pace. Some Republicans don’t want the Democrats to have any legislative victories at all. You cannot underestimate how partisan the Senate is and how enormously difficult it is for the Senate to do anything.”
Crowley warned of a sharp increase in homelessness, especially among tenants who have been renting houses that are now being foreclosed. The most promising bill to deal with this crisis is a measure that would set up a National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF), targeting assistance to middle- and low-income families evicted from such properties.
The housing trust fund is part of a massive foreclosure prevention bill authored by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) now pending in the Senate, with a final vote expected soon after Congress returns from its July 4 recess. The bill would provide $300 billion to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy up mortgages of 400,000 at-risk borrowers and convert them to lower, government-insured, fixed-rate mortgages. Crowley called it “one step in dealing with the foreclosure crisis.” Hypocritically, some Republicans charge that the program is a “government bailout” of bankers engaged in risky lending practices.
But the Republicans’ main target is the few modestly funded programs such as the National Housing Trust Fund that would assist low and moderate-income renters and homeowners. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, branded the housing fund a bailout and threatened to block it unless there were offsetting cutbacks in other housing assistance programs, a “rob Peter to pay Paul” scam.
Crowley wrote a letter to the Democratic leadership charging that Shelby’s scheme would “steal from the poor.” She added, “After the $30 billion taxpayer-guaranteed bailout of Bear Stearns and the $25 billion Senate-funded bailout for homebuilders, for committee Republicans to insist that the taxpayers should not pay $1.7 billion to prevent homeowners from losing their homes has to be called what it is: hypocrisy.”
Crowley told the World that her coalition of 5,700 groups has generated many thousands of phone calls and e-mails to Capitol Hill demanding enactment of the National Housing Trust Fund and opposing Shelby’s drive to kill it. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) managed to keep the NHTF alive with a compromise.
A second program in the package, titled the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, was authored by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). Approved by the House May 8, her bill would provide $15 billion in grants and loans to states and cities to purchase foreclosed and abandoned properties and fix them up. Sen. Dodd’s package provides $4 billion in Community Development Block Grants for the program. It too stipulates that part of the funding be used to insure affordable housing.
President Bush is citing this section of the bill in threatening a veto. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), sponsor of the House version of the bill, says he may offer the program later as a separate bill rather than risk a vote that sustains Bush’s veto of the entire package.
All 42 members of the Congressional Black Caucus signed a letter branding the Senate version as “unacceptable” because it strips out assistance to those hardest hit by the crisis. The letter cites “glaring omissions,” such as the failure of the Senate bill to provide assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Eric Hauge, a tenant organizer with Homeline, a housing advocacy group in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, told the World the movement for affordable housing has fought for five years to win passage of the NHTF. Since the housing crisis erupted last year, he said, “we’ve got a giant increase in the number of calls from people affected by these foreclosures. Tenants are losing their homes and having a lot of difficulty finding new rental properties they can afford.”
The Twin Cities metro Housing Authority last May auctioned off Section 8 housing vouchers. “They had 5,000 vouchers and 25,000 on the waiting list,” Hauge said. Many had been waiting 10 years.