Bush to Cities: Drop Dead!

If proposed cuts to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development go through, it could be 1975 all over again.

The news is all bad. And it’s nearly impossible to focus when confronted with the 99th article about the soaring deficit, the Bush administration’s efforts to privatize Social Security, or the latest multibillion-dollar request for funding the Iraq war. The numbers are incomprehensible, the arguments read like boilerplate, and it’s tempting to tune it all out. Better to let the policy wonks in Washington squabble.

So here’s a headline from the Washington Post, January 14, 2005: “Bush Plans Sharp Cuts in HUD Community Efforts.” It makes your eyes glaze over, doesn’t it? It’s one of those stories that is easier to skip. After all, what’s it got to do with you? But read on: “The White House will seek to drastically shrink the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s $8 billion community branch, purging dozens of economic development projects, scrapping a rural housing program, and folding high-profile antipoverty efforts into the Labor and Commerce departments, administration officials said yesterday.”

If you consider it for a moment, you might realize that this article discusses things you care about. What is housing and urban development if not architecture, design, and planning? The upshot of the story is that the administration’s budget proposal for 2006 would slash half of the $4.7 billion Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, a 30-year-old source of funding for everything from sewer systems to ADA compliance to historic preservation to affordable housing. It is a program so vital to the day-to-day life of America’s cities that the United States Conference of Mayors, meeting in Washington a few days after the Post article came out, issued an emergency resolution in support of full funding for the CDBG program that reads like a scream of pain from cash-strapped local governments.

Other programs slated for elimination or exile include the Brownfields Economic Development Initiative, which promotes infill development and discourages sprawl (this would be packed off like a stepchild in a Dickens story to the Commerce Department), and the modest $24 million Rural Housing and Economic Development program, which would be shut down.

As its name implies, HUD is the federal agency that tends primarily to the needs of cities (although it also helps build houses and infrastructure in rural areas). And part of the problem is that the Bush administration is not especially enthusiastic about cities or the people who live in them; in November John Kerry took 54 percent of the urban vote and 60 percent of the vote in America’s big cities. Also the increasingly expensive Iraq war combined with expansive tax cuts means there’s less money to spend on domestic programs. Necessities such as housing and infrastructure have suddenly become luxuries.

“You’ve got a deficit to address, and your constituency base is not cities,” says Chandra Western, director of the National Community Development Association, summarizing why the president’s budget request might eliminate programs that serve so many people. North Carolina-based architect Bryan Bell, known for devising innovative housing for migrant farmworkers, has a different take: “I just think it’s guns or butter. And we’re losing butter.”

“Essentially what’s being challenged is whether the federal government should continue to have a role in solving the problems of community and economic development for low- and moderate-income families,” explains Paul Hilgers, the director of neighborhood, housing, and community development for the city of Austin, Texas.

Hilgers runs what is one of the most progressive city housing agencies in the country. Austin recently completed an architecturally ambitious 26,820-square-foot homeless shelter and outreach center that harvests rainwater to flush toilets and runs on solar power. It was funded in part by HUD’s CDBG, a program that Hilgers points out was started by a Republican. “It began in the Nixon administration, and the concept was very simple,” he says. “We’ve got national problems that the federal government has some responsibility for but that we don’t know how to solve. So we’re going to create a program that allows for a lot of flexibility at the local level.”

In other words, the CDBG program is a model of big government acting with the nimbleness of small government, a remarkable achievement for the Nixon administration. Sadly the idea of cutting community-development funds by 50 percent is redolent of a different 1970s Republican president. It’s vintage 1975, as in “Ford to City: ‘Drop Dead!’”

But maybe the idea that the federal government has a bad attitude toward America’s cities is too sweeping a generalization, too unwieldy an abstraction. Maybe you care about sewers and sidewalks in roughly the same way you care about Social Security—you don’t really want to think about it too much but would surely notice if it wasn’t there. In that case, there’s a smaller, more accessible story buried in all the bureaucratic chatter. It’s about how we’ve begun to learn in the last decade that innovative and affordable housing are not mutually exclusive categories. The bottom-up approach that HUD began to emphasize during the Clinton years—making funds available for community development with a minimum of red tape—helped nurture a new generation of architects, who, inspired by the successes of Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio in Alabama and similar programs at universities around the country, began to try and recapture the Modernist mission of good design for everyone.

Earlier generations had taken Modernist ideas quite literally and used federal funds to build the monolithic housing projects that became the symbols of the public sector’s inability to effectively do good. Now a new generation of architects finds affordable housing beguiling: an intriguing puzzle to solve. Young practitioners, often graduates of university design/build programs, have become masters of ingenuity in the design and the funding of low-cost, affordable housing. Money from HUD is almost always part of the equation.

Hilgers says: “We have a very progressive group of young architects and engineers coming out of schools who are seriously committed to taking creative design standards to a lower-income level of people than ever before. And it’s very unfortunate that, at a time when we have a cadre of young creative professionals who need this kind of support, we would be looking to cut.”

Hilgers’s own office has been supportive of Austin firms like Krager Robertson Design Build, helping them to tap into federal funds. KRDB got enough HUD funding through Austin’s city housing program to make the houses they developed, designed, and constructed on Cedar Avenue, in East Austin, more affordable to moderate-income buyers. These lean, elegant daylight-filled homes sold for $105,000 and $125,000. Assistance from HUD shaved $10-15,000 off the selling prices and gave buyers a significant break on their down payments.

In Raleigh, Bryan Bell’s organization, Design Corps, relies heavily on funding from various branches of HUD, including the Rural Housing and Economic Development program that is scheduled for elimination. “If you talk about the Home Investment Partnership [not currently on the list of programs to be eliminated] and Rural Housing and Economic Development, those are entirely the sources of our projects,” Bell says. “And those are two programs that architects would really appreciate because the philosophy behind both of them is that it’s a local solution for local problems.”

“For me, it’s a one-stop shop,” Bell says, adding that having HUD funds helps him attract additional private backing to his projects. “It’s nice because it’s available in every state. You learn the regs. You cross the t’s, you dot the i’s, and you get the funding. It’s a great way of doing business.”

So next time you read a headline about cuts to HUD, don’t imagine a bland, faceless bureaucracy and skip to a juicier story. Don’t choke on the alphabet soup. Instead imagine architects, like Bell or KRDB, who are gradually developing new ways to make good architecture accessible to everyone who needs it. Think of the HUD cuts the way the scientific community might think of the abandonment of the Hubble telescope, a debilitating blow to a mission of exploration that’s allowing us to see farther and more clearly than we have ever seen before.

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