THE administration yesterday hailed the housing compromise it helped produce in the Senate as a "great victory" and "new housing policy for America." Democrats were scarcely less generous in their praise. In fact, the huge bill is less a departure than it sounds. Much of the money would go to continue present programs. Most of the poor aren't helped by these, and most are required to pay much more of their already inadequate incomes in rent than almost anyone thinks they can afford. For all the huffing and puffing that went into it on both sides, the bill would do relatively little to alleviate either of these two circumstances.
The debate leading up to the compromise was a strange mix -- and sometimes a mismatch -- of social evangelism and gritty detail. One issue was whether enough of the new aid in the bill was targeted on the neediest households. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp rightly argued that it wasn't -- an unusual position for a Republican secretary to have to defend against a Democratic Congress -- and won.
A second issue was whether too much of the new aid was going into construction of new housing for the poor, as distinct from helping them rent older housing. Mr. Kemp said rightly that older housing is cheaper, so more families can generally be helped for fewer dollars. He made as well the ancient Republican arguments that construction programs involve the government too deeply in the housing business and produce bad projects. He then tried to say that such programs invite corruption as well, offering last year's scandal at HUD as his example. Suddenly you were in a world where poorly written Democratic programs rather than cynical Republican officials trying to milk and kill those programs were responsible for the scandal. The secretary is right that in general, construction programs cost too much. But the Democrats are also right that in some tight markets, new low-cost units need to be financed and built. The bill comes out about right on this issue.
The Senate bill would fully fund Mr. Kemp's proposal to help the poor buy public housing or other subsidized units they are now renting. In many cases this sort of empowerment is a good idea, but it is not the central solution to the housing problems of the poor. The full funding of this program put the bill's cost over budget, but that is a phantom. This is an authorization only; the amounts remain subject to the appropriations process, and the structure of that is such that housing must compete in the same bill with such popular rivals for funds as veterans' groups, environmental programs and the space program. The housing bill must also still get through the House, whose committee has taken yet another approach to the problem. For the golden age of housing in this country, you're going to have to wait awhile.