In July 2015, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro came to Chicago and announced the agency’s renewed commitment to “affirmatively furthering” fair housing. The requirement that its grantees not spend federal dollars on discriminatory housing practices, and indeed that its grant recipients work toward reversing the effects of federally-subsidized housing segregation, was spelled out in the 1968 Fair Housing Act. For decades after the law was passed, however, it was unclear what it meant, exactly, to “affirmatively further fair housing.” And in practice HUD didn’t do much to hold its grantees, including the Chicago Housing Authority, accountable for upholding this aspect of the law. But as Castro addressed Chicago, it was clear that the Obama administration now wanted to take the CHA to task. It and other agencies would have to collect data and regularly report their progress on furthering fair housing in order to continue receiving federal funds.
Two weeks later, in an op-ed for the conservative Washington Times, Ben Carson, then a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, called this new HUD commitment a “tortured reading” of the Fair Housing Act, and an attempt at “social engineering.”
“These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse. . .” Carson argued. “Based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous.”
Carson—a neurosurgeon without experience in housing policy, development, or any related field—is now President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to succeed Castro as the head of HUD. And as Inauguration Day approaches, local housing policy experts are pondering the future of the relationship between HUD and the CHA. Because it has a special deregulation agreement with HUD, changes in presidential administrations since 2000 have had little effect on the CHA. The agency’s autonomy is guaranteed through 2028. But the Trump administration and Republican-controlled Congress could nevertheless threaten the CHA’s funding. And with Carson at its helm, the glimmer of hope that HUD might finally start exerting some pressure on Chicago to actively undo its entrenched patterns of segregated housing is quickly fading.
Created by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, HUD has wielded significant influence over the residential landscape of American cities by funding public housing construction and rental assistance vouchers (Section 8). Although Johnson wanted HUD to combat residential segregation, historically the agency has failed to exert meaningful pressure against racist local housing policies. In Chicago, HUD money was used to build public housing in segregated neighborhoods and to sort its residents by race until the 1970s. In later decades, as money for public housing construction dried up and vouchers became the preferred way to subsidize housing, HUD dollars essentially went from funding segregation in public housing to funding segregation in the private market.
In the 90s corruption and mismanagement within the CHA became so severe that HUD took over running the agency for the city. But Chicago’s public housing stock was by then so dilapidated that HUD’s leadership was powerless to significantly improve the CHA’s properties or reputation.
When control of the CHA was finally handed back to the city, HUD’s power over the agency weakened. In 2000, thanks to diligent political stumping by Mayor Richard M. Daley, the CHA entered a sweeping deregulation agreement called Moving to Work. Today HUD has minimal oversight over how the CHA spends the $700 million to $870 million in federal funds allocated to it every year—the lion’s share of the agency’s budget.
Whereas most local public housing authorities get HUD funding earmarked for specific types of spending, Moving to Work agencies are given wide latitude to pool and spend their HUD money as they see fit. It was the Moving to Work agreement that allowed the CHA to embark on the Plan for Transformation, demolishing about 18,000 public housing units without replacing them. It has also allowed the CHA to take public housing units offline while continuing to receive operating subsidies for these units—essentially getting paid for not housing people in developments like the Lathrop Homes. And Moving to Work is the reason why the CHA has been able to redirect at least $432 million initially allocated for housing vouchers into its reserves.
Meanwhile, even as Moving to Work gave more progressive CHA leaders the chance to make modest attempts to desegregate subsidized housing in the spirit of the Fair Housing Act—as it did with its now defunct “supervoucher” program—HUD hasn’t intervened to save these efforts from the backlash of local politicians.
Thus, for the last 16 years, under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, HUD leadership hasn’t made much difference in the facts on the ground in Chicago. The stock of public housing has decreased, renters relying on vouchers continue to live mostly in poor, black neighborhoods, and the CHA has steadily withdrawn from its role as the city’s largest landlord to being, essentially, a middleman between the federal government and local private developers and landlords.
Still, Castro’s announcement had been a breath of fresh air to fair housing advocates concerned about these trends.
“The beautiful thing about the Obama administration is they freed up HUD to pay attention to fair housing,” says Janet Smith, a professor of urban planning and policy at UIC. “Given his statements about anyone that’s not white, I don’t think Donald Trump will care about fair housing.”
Despite the latitude CHA has in spending HUD money, its Moving to Work contract is still subject to congressional appropriation. And here, the changes at the White House and in Congress could also bode poorly for Chicago. If Congress decides to significantly slash HUD’s $49 billion budget, the cuts will inevitably trickle down to the CHA, leaving the agency with hard decisions. For example: If Trump’s budget proposes severe cuts to HUD’s voucher program, or Congress makes cuts on its own, the CHA might have to choose to reduce voucher payments to all participating families or to reduce the overall number of vouchers it funds.
Fair and affordable housing advocates also worry that the ire the president-elect’s has already directed at sanctuary cities like Chicago might lead him to weaponize HUD funding, cutting it as a way of punishing cities that give refuge to undocumented immigrants. If funding for vouchers and public housing become conditional on cities cooperating in the detention and deportation of illegal immigrants, and if Chicago refuses to comply, low-income African-Americans, Latinos, and whites in need of the housing subsidies could be pitted against one another, weakening organizing ties and jeopardizing their ability to advocate for fair and affordable housing as a group.
“The nightmarish world I fear we will be in as a coalition is that the sanctuary city issue will be used to hold up federal funding from HUD,” says Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, which brings together housing organizers across the generational and racial spectrum. “There’s a real fear that all of the coalition-building of groups oppressed differently in this world will fracture.”
Despite this possibility, experts say Congressional funding cuts would have to be more severe than anything in recent history to have a major effect. The Moving to Work agreement would help insulate CHA from more minor cuts, because if funding for one type of program was cut—say, public housing—the agency could use some of the funding it gets for other programs—like vouchers—to maintain its public housing units. If huge cuts are made to every type of HUD funding, the CHA’s reserves could help it maintain its current level of services.
This might explain why, at least outwardly, CHA officials don’t seem too worried about the future of the agency’s federal funding.
“Throughout both Democratic and Republican led administrations, CHA has had an excellent relationship with HUD over the years,” CEO Eugene Jones said in a statement. “We look forward to that continuing and to having positive discussions with the new leadership at HUD so we can identify priorities that will deliver the best housing options for Chicago residents.”
Most of Trump’s cabinet picks have drawn outrage for their views and agendas that appear directly at odds with the agencies they’ve been picked to head. Betsy DeVos, picked to run the Department of Education, is a charter school proponent. Potential EPA secretary Scott Pruitt is a climate change denier with a history of suing the agency. Senator Jeff Sessions would be coming to the Justice Department with a track record of disregarding civil rights. But if Trump’s goal was to similarly dismantle HUD, there are a lot of other people he could have picked besides Carson who would actually know how to do that—people with strong ties to private developers and a track record of successful public housing privatization. Even if Carson wanted to dismantle HUD, with his total lack of experience, he seems unlikely to be someone who would know how to do that quickly and efficiently.
If Trump doesn’t intend to destroy HUD, Carson’s lack of expertise could be tempered by more knowledgeable political appointees below him—such as the assistant secretary for public and Indian housing—according to Lawrence Vale, a professor of urban design and planning at MIT. And below them, “there is still a strong cadre of career employees,” Vale says.
“One can only hope that they’ll be able to stall any changes that seem truly wrong-headed,” Vale says. “Of course, that assumes that [they] won’t just be forced out.”