September/October 1997

Congressman Rick Lazio on H.R. 2
Interview by Deborah Austin

Rick Lazio (R-Long Island, NY) was first elected to Congress in 1992. He currently serves as the chairman of the House Banking Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity. Deborah Austin is the acting executive director of the National Neighborhood Coalition and recently served as the director of legislation and policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
This interview was conducted on September 11, 1997

Deborah Austin: What is the philosophy behind H.R. 2? How would public housing change, assuming this bill goes through as proposed?

Rick Lazio: One overarching goal of H.R. 2 is to create environments where we can begin to successfully address poverty. We can't legislate an end to poverty, but we can help create incentives and environments where local leaders can address it successfully [by] providing for mixed incomes. That helps provide stability, role models, makes the buildings easier to manage. We look for ways to incentivise work, because work allows economic independence and is positive inherently; it's a good value passed down to children.

We are going toward integration of services. I have been to many cities, visited many public housing authorities and public housing buildings, talked to many residents, and the common strain is that people don't just worry about housing. They are looking for a clean, safe place to live, but also a place where their kids can get a good education; where, if they drop them off on the street corner, they know they'll get [to school] safely; where they can get to a job, pay decent prices for groceries, and get banking services. For 30 years the federal government went about the business of addressing housing in a vacuum, without the other elements of poverty. Our efforts are bringing together the resources of HUD, HHS, and the Departments of Labor, Justice, and Education. That's the future, creating partnerships with not-for-profits and local governments, empowering people not bureaucracies. I don't mean to provide a slogan; I want to provide resources to community leaders. I want them to have the ability to help direct their own future. Yes, there will be benchmarks and federal goals. But we're going to increasingly look to locals to devise a methodology on what works for their community. Every community will be different, not just in the path they take, but in the way they respond to some of the charismatic leaders in the area.

DA: Your bill does not require PHAs to provide residents with the maximum opportunity for participation and diminishes residents' ability to organize and influence local management. If the flip side of responsibility is authority, should not residents who are being asked to pay more and do more for the privilege of living in public housing also be given more control over their local authority?

RL: Residents should play a larger role in housing management. H.R. 2 provides numerous resident protections and empowerment opportunities, including requirements that PHAs make available for public inspection and comment the local housing management plan in a public hearing at residents' convenience, that at least one member of PHA boards of directors be an elected public housing resident, and that each PHA implement an administrative grievance procedure under which residents have the opportunity for a hearing on proposed adverse action before an impartial party. H.R. 2 also allows public housing residents to establish resident councils to consider resident issues and consult with PHAs. Residents may also establish management corporations (RMCs) to manage the development through contract with the PHA or by purchasing the development outright. Further, for troubled PHAs, residents have the right to transfer management to an RMC upon petition of the majority of residents to the Secretary.

DA: One key feature that separates your bill from the Senate's is the repeal of the 1937 Housing Act. Why do you think that's important?

RL: We need to clear away all the underbrush. Symbolically, it's very important that we open up this vista of the future. We want to look to the future by sweeping away a housing act that was relevant 60 years ago for a different America with different purposes and needs. We are saying we are brave enough to look forward and make decisions about where we want to be today, 10 years from now, and 20 years from now.

We [also] need to look to a continuum of housing. If we look to just public housing, or rental housing as the be all and end all, I think we are failing. I want people to have opportunities, if they're homeless, to get into shelter and get services. The next step is into permanent housing. The next step is homeownership, if they can, and as they get older, possibly back into assisted housing, if they need to when they are seniors. That continuum of going to be one of our goals and themes looking forward to the next 15 to 20 years.

DA: In the last conference, the 1937 Housing Act repeal was one of the sticking points. What do you think is the likelihood this time of there being a productive house-end conference and the bill passing by the end of this session?

RL: We now have our marching orders to try and come to an agreement on the mark-to-market or Section 8 issue, as well as public housing reforms. I would like to think there is a will to do that – there is certainly will on the House side. If we do come to an agreement, we will have the most successful year in the history of the federal partnership in housing. Even that pales in comparison with the challenges still before us: getting urban areas on the agenda, looking for ways to stimulate economic development in underserved areas.

We'll be looking for ways to provide the maximum amount of tools for housing. I neither believe that vouchers ought to be the only tool nor that we should preclude vouchers. One of the problems with the Senate's mark-to-market proposal is that it does not provide enough incentive for vouchers. When you have tight housing markets, vouchers are not as meaningful. But in other areas vouchers are important because they help people move to areas in which their children can get a good education. It is, in a way, an education reform as much as a housing reform. It also allows people to move away from areas in which, even if housing is good, they are not close to work. We have been down to New Orleans, for example, where they are rebuilding some of the Desire complex, which I think is a terrible decision. It's cut off from commerce, not close to any jobs, on a Superfund site, the school next door is closed down. These are precisely the kind of residents to whom we want to provide the option of vouchers. There is a supply of affordable housing in the downtown New Orleans area. But I don't want to turn our back on public housing; I don't want to turn our back on Section 8.

DA: Moving to Opportunity, Choice in Residency, and the Gautreaux program, have been extremely effective in deconcentrating poverty, but have faced considerable local political opposition. Do you support these programs?

RL: I support opportunities for local authorities to recreate mixed-income environments through greater flexibility in targeting levels. By allowing working-poor families into public housing, we move away from the concentrations of poverty and many of the accompanying social pathologies.

DA: With scarce resources, how do you make the choice of preserving some of the project-based stock – public housing and Section 8 – versus turning off that spigot and pumping out the voucher system.

RL: You've got to be sure you are getting value for the dollars, and are seeing the results of people moving through the system and achieving independence. One reason for such an emphasis on self-sufficiency, besides that you obviously want this as an end goal for every resident who has the ability, is that [people are waiting to get on the waiting list for subsidized housing]. It is only fair to provide incentives for people to move through the system and back into housing in the marketplace, so others can take advantage of those opportunities.

DA: As we encourage a healthy economic mix – and a lot of advocates agree with that – will we provide less assistance to some of the poorest households on the waiting list? Is this, in essence, punishing poor families because we don't have the political will to fully fund some of the programs? What do those households do right now, if the market is not offering them a choice?

RL: There are two major challenges here. The first is that money alone will not solve the problems many communities face. There are problems with social capital, education and training, and economic development, which can be addressed by creating the right incentives and bringing together the right partners. We need to get value for our money. We need to be able to go back and show that we are succeeding. That is the foundation for us to ask for additional funding. We are only meeting the needs of about a quarter of the population [I]f we are only going to help a quarter of the population, we want make sure we are really helping them transform their lives.

But we do need more resources. I could point to the low-income tax credit, for example. I argue for funding Habitat for Humanity – legislation we have adopted. I was one of the advocates for adequate funding for people in Section 8. The prevailing sentiment is – and I think this is a national sentiment – that there is not a lot of enthusiasm to spend on housing.

DA: I think some of the credibility gap relates to perceptions of HUD. Would you support eliminating HUD or have you ever?

RL: I have never supported elimination of HUD. I think we need to transform it. I would like to replace HUD with a Department of Communities. Our focus needs to be broader than just housing, although housing is the most important element of our anti-poverty program. Unless you have shelter, your health, jobs, all those other things, have a very difficult time coming together. But we need to take a broader view. I would like our new department to be a place where you work with synergy to address the issues of poverty by bringing all the other resources together. HUD is [one of the] federal departments that have been criticized as being severely distressed. It has had a troubled history of mismanagement and scandal. It is a department in search of a higher mission. I would like to help the department get it.

DA: Have you seen HUD's management reform plan and strategic plan, and do you think those plans are moving the department in the right direction?

RL: Secretary Cuomo is desperately trying to institute some internal management reforms, and I support him in it. But for them to be what they need to be in the 21st century (in a decentralized decision-making society where technology, especially information technology, creates new opportunities for communication between communities and Washington), their reforms are not profound or fundamental enough. They are still looking to pick out the right paint on the door; I'm trying to change the door. I don't want to belittle what they are trying to do. Those management reforms are valid. But they need to think about where HUD needs to be in 10 years or 15 years to see what their role is in trying to recycle their dollars and get involved in things like micro lending and economic development in commercial areas.

DA: In considering the mix of options to fight poverty, would you expand wage supports like the earned income tax credit so those households working full-time at minimum wage can afford local rents?

RL: I support efforts to allow families to keep more of what they earn. Just a few of H.R. 2's provisions include: the disallowance of any increase in resident income to be calculated in rent determination for 18 months; the automatic deductions from residents' adjusted income determination; the residents' choice to pay a flat unit-based rent that would not increase with an increase in family income; and affordable homeownership opportunities. Our legislation goes a long way toward creating opportunities for working-poor families to obtain affordable housing.

DA: The mortgage interest deduction provides almost $25 billion in tax benefits to households earning more than $100,000 a year. That benefit goes to the most well-off Americans and increases yearly. How can we justify cutting housing aide to the very poorest, while increasing it to the richest segments of the population?

RL: We have set a goal of the highest level of homeownership among all industrialized nations, and have accomplished that largely because of the home interest deduction. There is something fundamentally different between allowing people to keep more of what they earn by way of a deduction and somebody getting a direct subsidy. I would argue that the way to go is not to look for other areas of housing which cannibalize the dollars but for ways in which we can integrate our dollars that are not being spent wisely. For example, talk about the government departments that are bringing resources to the table but are not coordinating them – that's how you really get the value.

DA: Would you consider adjusting the mortgage interest deduction to allow more low- and moderate-income households to benefit from it?

RL: If you are asking if I support helping low- and moderate-income families in their efforts to obtain homeownership, then, yes, I support those efforts. The mortgage interest deduction exists to encourage individuals to buy their homes rather than continuing to rent. As a nation we have made the policy determination that increasing homeownership is an important goal because of the beneficial effects to communities. If we wish to increase homeownership rates, then it is desirable to provide incentives toward that end.

DA:  So your philosophy is that with direct partnerships we can address the 5.6 million households with worst case housing needs and no assistance?

RL: Yes. We need to get a homeless bill done, which we will do. We need to change our philosophy and focus on the continuum of housing. We need to look for an integration of our resources so we get more value for our dollars and wrap these things together. I want to see local communities and states do more. I don't want them to rely on the federal government. And I want to see local leaders empowered to make some of these decisions, because they are going to have the capacity to help turn their communities around.

Copyright 1997

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