HUD latest vehicle for White House power grab

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. questions value of Obama administration's housing proposal

August 25, 2013|Bob Ehrlich

There are so many things to say with regard to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's proposed rule entitled "Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing."

And since this proposal lands on the hot buttons of race and class, I'm going to ask all of you to take a deep breath, put aside your preconceptions about federal housing policy for a minute, and simply give some objective thought to the size and scope of this latest missive from Washington, D.C.

First, it is worthwhile to revisit a historical fact: Discriminatory housing practices were predominant in this country for a very long time. For context, check out metropolitan Baltimore housing patterns over the better part of the 20th century. The specter of such overt discrimination necessitated the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Henceforth, affordability was to be the determining factor in purchasing a home, not the color of one's skin.

The principle of affordability rather than race in choosing a home was far too long in the making; nevertheless, old patterns of lily-white suburbs and black inner cities began to fade with the impact of the new law and increasing black wealth. Few would disagree that housing discrimination has significantly declined over the past 50 years.

But what about more subtle forms of discrimination, such as redlining and residential "steering"? The remedy for these abusive practices came about in the form of various government empowerment programs that sought to accelerate desegregation through housing voucher resettlements. First, Section 8 certificates were made available to qualifying poor families in making rent payments for private apartments. Then, a series of controversial programs to transplant the poor to homes in upscale neighborhoods so that they might be exposed to homeownership in a safer setting. All of which did not sound reasonable to the neighbors (black and white) who had worked hard for the opportunity to live in those neighborhoods.

In fact, it's safe to say that suburban Baltimore's reaction to such programs was rather negative. Vociferous opposition and well-attended, high-profile protests became the order of the day. Liberal observers (including editorial writers from this newspaper) screamed "racism"; conservative opponents screamed "social engineering." Ultimately, the most unpopular of the voucher programs ("Moving to Opportunity") was quietly defunded by Maryland's junior Democratic U.S. senator.

Fast forward to today, wherein an ultra-progressive Obama administration is on a second-term rampage to federalize just about everything in its sight (see my column of Aug. 11).

To wit, HUD's present push to impose a new regulation that would empower the feds to "track diversity in America's neighborhoods and then push policies to change those it deems discriminatory [by compiling] data on segregation and discrimination in every neighborhood." In plain English, this proposed rule empowers the federal government to arbitrarily judge discriminatory housing intent ZIP Code by ZIP Code, and then take the appropriate remedial action against the offending neighborhoods.

The implementing mechanism is to be HUD's "discrimination database." This vehicle would in turn seek changes in (local) zoning ordinances, housing finance, infrastructure policy and transportation in order to remedy the alleged segregation. Note the Obama Administration's typical modus operandi: an aggressive federal power grab with few specifics on how it's all to go down in the real world of neighborhoods and communities. (If all this reminds you of Obamacare's reliance on an overarching regulatory bureaucracy, you are not alone.)

A further note: This latest administration initiative sounds remarkably similar to the (anti-redlining and easy credit) federal housing policies that fueled the subprime mortgage meltdown that ultimately caused the "worst economic crisis since the Great Depression" (per President Obama).

Some of you dismiss these programs as nanny state "hand-outs" from the federal government. Others see them as a "hand up" to the economically depressed. Regardless, at this point we simply do not know if the proposed rule will prove to be as draconian as conservatives are predicting or as helpful as liberals wish it to be. It's all about the implementation.

But this is what I do know. Many years ago in Arbutus, Bob and Nancy Ehrlich taught that God helps those who help themselves. They also impressed upon me the notion that people tend to appreciate what they earn far more than what they are given. Independently, but in the same moral vein, Martin Luther King was teaching a racially divided nation that the content of one's character is far more important than the color of one's skin.

All fundamental values to live by.

Wonder how these words of wisdom would be framed in the Federal Register?

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.

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