Last Friday, Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh published a provocative op-ed column in the New York Times headlined, “To Fight Poverty, Tear Down HUD“. In this column, he argued that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is not effective in dealing with national housing policy, the problems facing troubled cities and their struggling suburbs, or reducing poverty. He recommended redistributing its responsibilities to other agencies, as well as creating a new, more focused agency for the core mission of fighting poverty. I share Venkatesh’s frustration with HUD, but I don’t agree that the solution is abolishing the agency, because the real problem is political, not administrative. In a short piece published on the National Housing Institute’s Rooflines blogsite, I take issue with Venkatesh’s prescription, even though I agree with him that we need to address poverty, jobs, housing, transportation, and other issues in a more concerted way and with both a national and regional approach.
The long-standing problems at HUD that Venkatesh identifies are symptoms of the weak political constituency for current approaches to low-income housing, not a matter of inherent bureaucratic ineptitude. Like FEMA, HUD’s successes and failures are the result of political choices. Compare FEMA’s (and HUD’s) success in helping the victims of the Northridge earthquake in the Los Angeles area in the 1990s (during the Clinton administration) with FEMA’s (and HUD’s) failure to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Gulf Coast (under Bush). FEMA’s and HUD’s failures were symptoms of the Bush administration’s disdain for government in general and the poor in particular. It was a problem of indifference, not incompetence. (Or, put differently, it was Bush’s indifference that led him to appoint incompetents to run FEMA and fail to commit the needed resources to address both the immediate rescue and long-term recovery of New Orleans).
Instead of abolishing HUD, I suggest in my piece that we focus on crafting a national anti-poverty/shared prosperity policy agenda — with both short-term ad long-term goals — that can mobilize majority support among American voters and win majority support in Congress.