Democrats' Cause Is Tempered by Political Realities

As House Financial Services Committee chairman, Barney Frank, in background, has sought measures Republicans can vote for.
As House Financial Services Committee chairman, Barney Frank, in background, has sought measures Republicans can vote for. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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By Juliet Eilperin and Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 9, 2007

During the 12 years that Republicans ran the House, their leaders didn't pay much attention to affordable-housing activists. Despite soaring rents and complaints of a deepening affordability crisis, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) told his conference that he didn't want to see housing bills on the floor. He thought housing programs were unreformed welfare -- and they competed for the same pot of money in an annual funding bill as his beloved NASA.

But now that Democrats took over the House in November, their leaders are affordable-housing activists. Liberals Barney Frank (Mass.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.) run the two panels overseeing housing policy after agitating for years, without success, for increased government rent assistance. They came to office promising to pass the first major housing legislation since the early 1990s.

Last month, the House passed their bill, a measure to address the housing shortages that have festered on the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. After the storm wiped out 82,000 rental units in New Orleans, DeLay blocked a housing bill from Richard H. Baker (R-La.) because, sources said, the majority leader did not consider Baker a "team player." But Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), now speaker of the House, campaigned on Katrina inaction -- a prime example, she told audiences last fall, of the "do-nothing Congress" -- and vowed a fast reversal. The resulting Democratic bill includes several bold precedents, including a "right to return" for all displaced hurricane victims and "one-for-one replacement" for all demolished public housing units.

Democratic leaders say the Katrina bill -- which has yet to come up for a vote in the Senate -- is just a beginning. They hope to create a huge affordable-housing trust fund, restrict predatory lending, expand rent subsidies and tax credits for low-income housing, and push the federal government back into apartment construction.

"It's night and day," said Michael Kane, an affordable-housing advocate in Boston. "The atmosphere has totally changed."

But with housing -- as with higher-profile issues such as global warming and Iraq -- the new congressional leaders are trying to balance their ideas of what is desirable with their assessments of what is fiscally and politically possible during the Bush administration. So they are pushing low-cost measures that many Republicans can support, while promising their liberal base they will do more later.

"Everything we do is a political calculation; we're constantly thinking about what can become law," said Frank, the acerbic new chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. "We're interested in getting practical results."

On the Katrina bill, that meant making deals beyond the Democrats' liberal constituencies -- and the sponsors' own inclinations. Republicans were allowed to offer amendments, and one barring felons from public housing passed over the opposition of Democratic leaders. Similarly, in an effort to ensure bipartisan support and a presidential signature, Frank quietly killed three Democratic amendments that would have subsidized tens of thousands of families who lost homes in Katrina, although he relented on one of them. And he berated one activist who urged him to do more.

Still, housing activists are delighted to have like-minded "housers" in charge. They finally get to meet with leadership and provide wish lists to staff. And they have serious wishes: Over the past two decades, as the population has increased and rents have skyrocketed, the number of federally assisted apartments has not budged. Only 1 in 4 families eligible for subsidies receives them, and half of all "working poor" families spend more than half their income on rent. Despite the rising rate of homeownership, advocates say the price for decent shelter is still the primary obstacle to the American dream, more burdensome than the costs of health insurance, gasoline or taxes.

But after years of battling their enemies, some progressives are concerned their friends will take them for granted.

"The big question is whether the Democrats are really committed to change, or whether they're just making political statements," said Barbara Sard, a housing activist with the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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