Sudhir Venkatesh*, a Columbia University Sociologist, wrote “To Fight Poverty, Tear Down HUD,” and in it he suggests imploding HUD (like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project) to increase regional collaboration. Having just finished a HUD proposal, it made me think about HUD’s evolution and previous attempts to reform the agency. Venkatesh gives a brief overview of HUD’s emergence in 1965 and its mission to carry on the Progressive Era’s notion that slums are the root of urban problems, rather than the inhabitants—see here for detail. Still, Venkatesh argues that HUD had outlived its usefulness and needs to be eliminated or reconstructed.
He uses the HOPE VI Program as a supportive example. Jake briefly covered Hope VI in “On Gangs and Proposals,” and the program more or less pays housing authorities to tear down public housing and replace projects with “mixed-income” developments, resulting in outcomes like those described in “American Murder Mystery.” Regardless of whether Venkatesh thinks HOPE VI and other competitive** HUD programs can be used to dismantle the agency, he’s wrong about the potential for reform because of the Godzilla of HUD, The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program.
CDBG agglomerates dozens of competitive HUD programs as they existed in the early 1970s into a single grant, awarded without competition to eligible cities and counties. Being designated as “CDBG-eligible” is the local jurisdictional equivalent of being elected Prom Queen. CDBG jurisdictions can spend the money however they want, provided that the use can somehow be justified under one of the eight statutory CDBG requirements—meaning that just about anything can be made CDBG eligible through the jurisdiction’s “Five-Year Comprehensive Plan” and associated “Annual Action Plans.”***
Thus, local officials often use CDBG funds as “walking around money” for favored nonprofits in the name of “developing viable communities,” which is the stated purpose of CDBG. The witch’s brew of local politicians, other people’s money, hand-in-the-till nonprofits and a plethora of interest groups involved in CDBG means that there is zero chance of HUD going away. I’ve watched the “let’s get rid of HUD” movement for years, starting in 1980 with the Reagan Revolution**** (he gave up), Jack Kemp’s appointment as HUD Secretary by Bush 41 (failed at achieving promised reforms), and most recently, HUD being on Newt Gingrich’s hit list in 1994 (HUD survived to fight another day, while Newtie ended up bloviating on Fox News and writing historical novels of questionable literary merit).
Not only has HUD lived on, with the help of its legion of CDBG-engorged supporters, but it actually continues to grow, throwing off new programs like the small monsters sloughing off the Big Guy in my favorite recent Big Animal movie, Cloverfield. We’ve come full circle: the CDBG program was created to unify a bunch of categorical programs to give local officials the ability to address their pressing local needs, and now the CDBG program, along with a couple dozen assorted competitive programs, hangs on the HUD funding tree like Christmas ornaments.
While Venkatesh can speculate on dismantling HUD or using the block grant approach “to provide incentives for municipal and county governments to collaborate,” HUD is a permanent fixture of the grant landscape because it was created to solve some of the problem he identifies, and the result of a supersized CDBG program is likely to be even more walking around money and self-interested entities at the CDBG trough, not more collaboration between cities and counties. To paraphrase, “Reformers Rail, but HUD Abides.”
* Venkatesh wrote a terrific book on life on the streets in Chicago’s Southside, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, which mirrors my experience growing up and later working as a community organizing intern in the North Minneapolis ghetto. Would-be grant writers should read it.
** Grant writing tip: government agencies mostly make two kinds of grants, formula (the grantee does nothing to get them money other than open its mouth like Jabba the Hut) and competitive (applicants submit proposals that are evaluated against one another). One will occasionally see a hybrid version, a competitive process in which the grant amount is based on a formula of some sort, but most grant writers won’t encounter this chimera.
*** I’ve read dozens of Comprehensive Plans from all around the country over the years, and, despite supposedly being individually written to reflect the jurisdiction’s unique problems, they are basically all the same—a rehash of census data, oddball stats on homeless issues and the like, and a pastiche of platitudes designed to get HUD to okay the plan and uncork CDBG funds. In other words, the local CDBG planning process is at best a cookbook exercise.
**** See Stockman’s The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed, which is a great political read and covers the first failed attempt to disassemble HUD. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men complements it.