THE GOOD HOUSING news last week was not just that the administration intends to seek a significant increase in the number of subsidized units for the poor this year, but that the White House itself made the announcement. This is a White House that puts its arm around such proposals only when convinced that they will be popular. The president has a Cartesian philosophy, though with a twist: "I poll, therefore I am." That an increase in the housing programs for the poor would be regarded as a political plus is a major change.
Only five years ago, this same White House contemplated abandoning the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and its programs. The Republicans had just jolted the Democrats -- surprised even themselves -- by winning control of both houses of Congress. They believed they had a mandate to shrink the government and were looking for whole departments to eliminate. Why not give them dysfunctional HUD, some White House aides mused aloud. To save the department, then-Secretary Henry Cisneros and a small group of aides produced in days a plan to redesign it. They were helped by the Democrats' loss, in that they were able to toss aside programs and regulations that had survived only because some senior congressional Democrat thought they were good ideas.
The redesigners, to serve their own policy purposes, went further in disestablishing some of HUD's traditional programs than even the Republicans were prepared to go. They called the Republicans' bluff by proposing to "voucherize" public housing -- put the public projects at the mercy of the marketplace by giving the tenants vouchers they could use to live in the projects or elsewhere, as they chose. The prospect of such a dispersal frightened suburbanites as much as it did big-city housing authorities, and the idea went nowhere. But it did succeed in giving some Republicans pause.
In the end, all their bravado to the contrary, they could think of no real alternative to the inherited programs, the largest of which -- a system of vouchers or rent stamps -- had been their own party's invention in the 1970s. They became, if not more supportive of the HUD programs, at least more acquiescent, even as Mr. Cisneros and his successor, Andrew Cuomo, supported changes aimed at reducing some of the programs' perverse side effects and improving their reputation.
Did the practice of housing the very poorest first cause too great a concentration of families with serious social problems in large housing projects? They'd ease the policy. Did the well-intentioned rule that tenants should be required to pay "only" 30 percent of their income in rent drive out the upwardly mobile, because 30 percent of every extra dollar earned went automatically to the housing authority? The secretaries would ease that constraint as well. An authorization bill was finally passed in the last Congress that sensibly altered inherited policy around the margins without abandoning the basic mission of housing the poor.
After four years of drought, the number of subsidized units again has been modestly increased in each of the past two years. The president proposes a larger, third increase in a row. The programs still would be growing slower than the need, as measured by the number of families poor enough to be eligible. And plainly the issue of segregation remains -- the problem of dispersal on which both Clinton-era secretaries have worked obliquely, mostly in vain. But housing is an area in which some useful compromises have occurred and genuine if modest progress has been made in an era of sharply divided government. Perhaps that's why, at budget time, it's no longer anathema.