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Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs 2000 (2000) 89-96


[A Decent Home: Housing Policy in Perspective]

Michael A. Stegman: John Quigley frames his historical analysis of American housing and urban policy in terms of the landmark Housing Act of 1949. He argues that this is an appropriate lens through which to view national urban policy because housing "is the most basic and durable aspect of national urban policy, and provides the spatial context within which other policies operate." I think this framework is too narrow. From the beginning, national urban policy has had much broader concerns than the programs that have emanated from the 1949 Housing Act. Robert C. Weaver, HUD's first secretary, argued that urban policy should focus on the problems of poverty and race by "putting a floor under income (especially for those with incomes too low even for our subsidized programs), breaking segregated residential patterns, increasing the citizen's role in decision-making, developing more effective instruments of local government, providing tax-sharing, or some other form of substantial financial aid to local governments." These, said Weaver, "are some of the major issues that the nation must tackle." 1

An emphasis on race, space, and the spatial distribution of economic opportunities continues to preoccupy urban policymakers. For example, in his letter transmitting HUD's 1995 national urban policy report to the president, HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros says that "the polarization of urban communities--isolating the poor from the well-off, the unemployed from those who work, and minorities from whites--frays the fabric of our civic culture, and acts as a drag on the national economy. If we fail to address the problems of our cities, connecting residents of distressed neighborhoods with the jobs and opportunities of their metropolitan economy, we will not be able to compete and win in the global economy." 2 [End Page 89]

Quigley's housing-centered analyses could have been better connected to urban policy had he chosen to examine the links between housing and other federal policy initiatives that affect cities, such as welfare reform. Because it has no explicit spatial concerns, Quigley chose to ignore welfare reform, but it is often the implicit spatial impacts of "nonurban" policies that have significant urban impacts. A recent report from the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, for example, indicates that many cities are having a harder time reducing welfare caseloads than other communities in their states, and that the greater the city's poverty and concentrated poverty, the slower the city's caseload decline relative to the state's. 3

The housing-welfare nexus also illustrates why it is important for economists to pay careful attention to policy interdependencies. For example, according to Sandra Newman, about half of all families in assisted housing also receive welfare, and about a third of all welfare recipients also receive housing assistance. 4 Therefore it is virtually impossible to discuss low-income housing policy without taking account of welfare reform. Economists could help policymakers anticipate the implications of a time-limited cash assistance program's ramming headlong into a housing assistance system that remains a virtual lifetime entitlement for those who are fortunate enough to receive a housing subsidy. Economists who are evaluating the effectiveness of work incentives and liberalized asset limits on state efforts to move families from welfare to work could also help the housing community find cost-effective ways to eliminate the work disincentives built into the public and assisted-housing programs that cause rents to rise when unemployed residents go to work.

Even through a housing-policy lens, Quigley could have addressed the growing self-sufficiency movement within the assisted-housing realm, and whether the form of housing subsidy one receives might affect the likelihood of assisted household members finding work or increasing their work effort. For example, research in California by Paul Ong reveals that "residents with tenant-based Section 8 work considerably more than do those renting in the private market or residing in public housing. This finding holds after controlling for observable personal characteristics and accounting for income...

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pp. 89-96
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Archived 2009
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