Housing is economic stimulus

Pub date January 20, 2009
WriterPaul Boden
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

By Paul Boden

EDITORIAL Change is certainly in the air these days. A president who understands that the phrase "economic recovery" is more then just a buzzword for tax cuts and bailouts for corporations and wealthy people represents perhaps the biggest, and some would argue the most important change — and it offers an opportunity for struggling communities.

President-elect Barack Obama has promised to create the largest public works construction project since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s. He has talked about funding work on everything from schools to sewer systems, from green jobs to ensuring that every American has access to a college education. All this is incredibly good news for the country as a whole.

My concern is that homelessness has received very little mention, although more than 3 million people experience homelessness every year. Family homelessness, in particular, is on the rise, with 16 cities (out of 25 surveyed in a recent report) reporting an increase in the number of families forced out of their homes. And yet there seems no clear plan for using economic recovery programs to restore the draconian cuts in federal affordable housing funding. Since 1983, those programs have been reduced by $54 billion a year. And there’s no plan to show how addressing homelessness can and should be part of the economic revitalization of local communities.

Many of us watched in despair as our issues were ignored during the campaign debates and in the party platforms. Homelessness is the No. 1 issue locally, yet it was all but ignored nationally.

But the country has now elected a president who understands what it means to respect the work of true community organizations and allow for local voices to be at the table when decisions are made that have an impact on our lives.

Local Community Development Corporations (CDCs) and Housing Development Corporations (HDCs) already exist in many communities. The credible ones will work in partnership with community members and organizations to combine a federal reinvestment in affordable housing with economic stimulus activities that benefit everyone — street-level space for creating new local businesses, job training connected to positions created in the development and management of the new business and housing units, the use of (and training in) smart green technology in all development.

Tax dollars invested in affordable housing stay in the local economy. Many of the jobs created remain long after the construction phase is completed.

Economic recovery plans are being made now, as federal departments are hiring staff and priorities are being set. Congress, despite the lessons learned from the banking bailout, is in a rush to release funds without much detail. We need direct petitioning from local communities. We need calls demanding that a share of economic recovery funding be given directly to local organizations to develop desperately needed housing and community spaces, using accountable local hiring requirements and safe green building practices.

It’s on all of us locally to come together and make the call.

Paul Boden is director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a coalition of West Coast social justice-based homeless organizations.