Thursday, February 2, 2017

Appropriations will be messy, again

by Ethan Handelman, National Housing Conference


Legislative battles over federal spending decisions are gearing up again, both for the already delayed FY 2017 appropriations and the upcoming FY 2018 budget. Affordable housing should be a priority, but with the many downward pressures on non-defense discretionary spending, only a very strong united push from housing stakeholders can be effective.

First, consider what most is in jeopardy. Politically, the last thing any elected official wants to cut is something that displaces or evicts people. Within HUD, 80 percent to 85 percent of the annual budget simply keeps people housed: project-based rental assistance, Housing Choice Vouchers, public housing and homeless assistance programs. The remainder is mostly HOME and CDBG, the block grant programs that go to help create housing, preserve housing and help people who haven’t yet been helped.

For FY 2017 spending, which Congress must address in April when the current continuing resolution (CR) expires, Congress will be seeking the path of least pain. Just extending the CR won’t entirely work for affordable housing, because program costs rise with rents, and as we all know, rents are going up. But to create what’s called an anomaly in the CR to pay rising rental cost, Congress needs to find money from elsewhere to stay under the budget caps. Often, this money comes from within the same appropriations bill, but that is more a custom than a requirement. As we are all seeing, past performance is not necessarily a predictor of future results.

The picture for FY 2018 looks similar, in that the underlying tension between rising costs and the limited reach of existing assistance remains. The budget cap under current law is even tighter for FY 2018 because sequestration caps are back in force, unless Congress changes it. Furthermore, decisions on several other fronts will affect how much money there is to spend. A new infrastructure spending bill seems likely soon, although funding sources are unclear. The Trump Administration has promised a border wall, and House Speaker Paul Ryan has discussed a supplemental appropriations bill to pay for it. Tax reform is in the works, too, and the Trump Administration has expressed a desire to increase military spending. Factor in the surprises that always seem to complicate federal policy, and the competition for scarce federal dollars looks to be intense.

Unity is our best strategy in this environment. Strong, coordinated voices calling for investment in affordable housing as part of economicinfrastructure, as a basic part of the safety net and as a key to revitalizing communities can make a difference. If, however, we choose what NHC President Chris Estes calls “siloed defense” that supports one housing program by cutting down others, we will ultimately lose. A variety of voices making the case for housing in different ways will be most effective with some baseline coordination as we all communicate our messages.

NHC is working to bring national organizations with voices on housing together and to be a resource for all housing stakeholders in their advocacy. We aim to coordinate more than lead, because we want to make your voices stronger. Existing campaigns like CHCDF, NDD United, the ACTION Campaign, United for Homes, Home Matters and others are making a difference thanks to the many voices that support them.

It’s going to be a challenging season, during which we need champions on both sides of the aisle who understand the value of investing in housing. And if you think appropriations are messy, just wait for tax reform.

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