In this age of austerity, whoever wins the presidential election will have to make tough decisions about where to find budget savings, and housing advocates worry that HUD could be a top target, at a time when the agency is already under stress.
The agency’s difficulty in meeting needs has grown only tougher with the onset five years ago of a national housing downturn, which pushed unemployment sharply higher. Rents also increased, as more people lost their homes to foreclosure or were shut out of buying a home and sought rental housing instead.
In 2009, 4.6 million poor people received aid while 14.3 million still needed it, according to HUD and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, citing the most recent statistics available.
Obama and Romney face pressure to target budget savings to tame the nation’s debt. The president and Congress agreed last summer to set historically tight caps on domestic spending. In addition, deep cuts will take effect next year unless lawmakers agree to raise taxes or find other savings. Some elements of the safety-net will be spared — Medicaid and food stamps — but not HUD.
“HUD is in a much more precarious, dangerous place than many other programs,” said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan told Congress last month that the administration had been forced to make decisions it did not want to make and urged lawmakers to increase revenues to avoid burdening the poorest families even more.
“Protecting current families required us to make choices we would not have made in a different environment,” he said.
Still, there are profound differences between how Obama and Romney are likely to deal with the budget pressures.
Romney may seek to abolish HUD, and though he hasn’t given many details, he has signaled support for the domestic spending approach embraced by House Republicans. That approach dramatically reduces spending on programs such as housing assistance, which would likely mean that far fewer low-income people have access to rental aid.
“Gov. Romney is committed to finding areas in the federal government where he can increase efficiency and reduce spending. He is also interested in returning to the states responsibility and resources for programs that they can more efficiently and effectively administer,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.
When Romney was overheard by reporters at a private fundraiser saying he’d eliminate HUD, Obama’s campaign pounced. “In order to fund his $5 trillion tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, he would make deep cuts in programs essential to the middle class like . . . housing,” spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement.