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Taking the bait--or not

Last Wednesday I circulated around a crowded dining hall, interrupting homeless men as they tried to enjoy a quiet meal: “Sir, could I talk to you for a minute?” Though I was warned that some might be resistant or rude, they were all polite, some of them even pleasant. I needed their cooperation for a survey conducted by a local community service organization in order to get an accurate count of the homeless in our area. The ultimate goal was money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Our county receives more than a million dollars from HUD, and even though only a small percentage of that goes to homeless services, one day was set aside and volunteers signed up to get as accurate a count of street people as possible.

Homeless shelters operate on a shoestring, and any funds are welcome. Still, because of some new regulations in the executive branch, HUD may be the key to kneecapping local control of our cities and towns—or eradicating local control altogether.

The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Act (AFFH), issued last year by the Obama administration, is “the most serious effort HUD has ever undertaken” to make good on the promise of fair housing promised by the Civil Rights Act of 1968—that’s according to HUD Secretary Julián Castro. The regulation requires cities and surrounding suburbs to complete a lengthy “Assessment Tool” and report their findings to HUD. If HUD finds an unacceptable concentration of minority groups in undesirable areas, it can require the local government to come up with a plan to redistribute the population more fairly—or else. The “or else” would be loss of federal funds, and a possible lawsuit.

Critics call this “social engineering,” and it does seem over-ambitious. As a case in point, Dubuque, Iowa, probably never considered itself an extension of Illinois, which is directly across the Mississippi River. Until last year the city was issuing “Section 8” housing vouchers according to a point system that gave preference to the local poor—those who were already living in Dubuque or in the nearby counties. But HUD used AFFH to require the city to scrap their system and give equal preference to applicants from Chicago. According to Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, this is because Chicago has mismanaged its own voucher program and needs backup. Because Dubuque is considered a “region” that includes Chicago (an arbitrary designation by HUD), the river city is on the hook.

All cities may be on the hook before long, and HUD money is the bait. As I talked one-on-one with the poorest of the poor in my town, I wondered if I was an accessory to a hijacking. These men need money, but they need mentoring and personal contact much more, none of which a federal agency can provide. But if HUD can dictate zoning laws and allocation of local taxes, it can “approve” and “disapprove” all benevolent programs according to abstract goals set in D.C. What if we refuse the bait? Some communities already have. Maybe ours should, too.

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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