President Trump has stated his intention to focus on entitlement reform. While House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., wants to move forward on this issue, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has stated that major entitlement reform is off the table unless there is clear bipartisan support. By all accounts, there is almost no chance of this happening before the 2018 midterm elections.
There is however, a third way toward entitlement reform which would neither require cutting or increasing any programs and which may not even require new legislation. This third way would be to direct the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development to allow housing authorities to time limit housing benefits for nonsenior, able-bodied adults.
This would be a revolutionary change in America’s entitlement culture, for it would stop the passing from one generation to another — like a family heirloom — taxpayer funded affordable housing.
This one reform — coupled with the 1996 GOP-Clinton welfare reform law overhaul which put into place a five-year limit to receive cash benefits — would produce generational shockwaves throughout American society and force those on the dole to embrace the work culture. Noted political scientist Charles Murray has written extensively about the economic and cultural divide in American society and the decline of the work ethic. This one change in housing policy could reverse this trend.
HUD is uniquely placed to play a key role in finally ending the welfare entitlement culture for it funds. The agency oversees more than 3,000 housing authorities which provide housing for almost 4 million households with a total population close to 10 million people. Most of these are on some form of public assistance, such as food stamps, and have lived in affordable housing for more than two generations. Currently, once a family secures tax-payer-subsidized housing, there are zero penalties or incentives to eventually move out into free-market housing. Public housing started out as a one of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs. It was never the intention to provide lifetime, tax-payer-funded housing to nonseniors who have no physical and mental barriers to gainful employment.
This is not a radical idea. Even the Obama administration tried to expand HUD’s Moving to Work, or MTW, program, which allows for housing time limits. MTW was created in 1996 and received bipartisan support. MTW, however, is limited to 39 housing authorities. Still, housing authorities across America have been taking the initiative to set time limits. Surprisingly, one of the best examples is the Worcester Housing Authority, or WHA, in blue Massachusetts. Its Better Life Program has set housing timelines. The WHA offers case management and other assistance to help families become self-sufficient. For many, this is the first time in generations that anyone has sought employment.
When HUD found out about this program, it acted very quickly to shut it down. But the WHA has been utilizing the program, with success, for its non-HUD-funded state public housing programs.
Another added benefit to time-limited affordable housing is that it would open up housing to millions of people who sometimes wait for over ten years for affordable housing. Many housing advocates want to see time limits for this reason alone. Once the benefit is received, it is then commonly passed down from generation to generation. This is not good public policy, and it has created a generational expectation to taxpayer funded housing.
The first step in making this third way for entitlement reform a reality would be to direct HUD to conduct a legal review to determine if they can allow time-limited housing benefits. Currently there is no stipulation which states that this cannot be done. In fact, there is speculation that HUD has the power now to issue waivers to allow housing time limits. If it is determined HUD cannot do this, then legislation should be drafted. There are strong indications that such a law would have bipartisan support.
Douglas Bushman is the executive director of the Marlborough Massachusetts Community Development Authority and a real estate attorney. He served as an alternate delegate for President Trump at the Republican National Convention and was a campaign volunteer. Mr. Bushman grew up in affordable housing funded by HUD. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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