The politics of housing

November 14, 2005

The Enterprise Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Columbia that financed the building of 180,000 affordable homes around the country - including 10,000 in Baltimore - has long supported efforts by community-based groups to register thousands of low-income voters. Though both activities would ordinarily be considered laudable, in the extraordinarily partisan environment in Congress, the foundation's support for voter registration activities is being used to keep it and thousands of community-based housing groups from tapping into a new federal fund designed to create more affordable housing.

House Republicans recently voted to bar nonprofit groups from applying for grants from the housing fund if they have held or participated in voter registration activities, or affiliated with groups that have, in the last year.

This move leaves little doubt that the lawmakers are more interested in blocking voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote activities than in providing needed affordable housing to the poor, disabled and elderly Americans - who tend to vote for Democrats - targeted by these voter drives.

The housing fund is part of new legislation strengthening regulatory oversight of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It would pay for production or preservation of 4,000 affordable-housing units a year using 5 percent of the mortgage companies' after-tax profits. The legislation would create the Federal Housing Finance Agency to oversee the mortgage companies.

The prohibition was added to the legislation as a last-minute amendment. It would also exclude groups that use their own money, or privately raised funds, on nonpartisan voter registration drives. Interestingly, it would permit for-profit groups that conduct similar voter drives to apply for the grants.

Lawmakers who pushed for the prohibition say it will keep politics out of the process, a disingenuous position given their political motives. Current law permits nonprofit groups to engage in get-out-the-vote activities provided they are nonpartisan. The Internal Revenue Service can revoke the tax-exempt status of those that violate the rule, impose fines on them and even shut them down.

The prohibition will undermine the goal of providing affordable housing to poor Americans, a result Bart Harvey, chief executive of the Enterprise Foundation, rightly calls "a tragedy" and "a disgrace." Some 14 million U.S. families live in substandard housing or struggle daily to keep a roof over their heads. Hundreds of nonprofits, including civil rights and faith-based groups, oppose the amendment.

Senators considering the legislation should reject the politicization of such an important measure and refuse to reconcile their version of the bill with the House version until the prohibitive amendment is removed.

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