Fudge, Buttigieg pitch housing infrastructure push to skeptical GOP

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Two of President Biden’s top Cabinet officials leading his infrastructure push pitched lawmakers Thursday on the importance of major investment in affordable housing as Democrats and Republicans attempt to strike a bipartisan deal.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge urged members of the Senate Banking Committee to think broadly and boldly about what an infrastructure package should do and include.

Buttigieg and Fudge argued that a successful infrastructure plan would not only repair roads, bridges, railways and waterways — the traditional focus of such packages — but transform relationships among people, businesses and communities to bolster the economy.

“Our lowest-income Americans are spending more on housing and transportation than they’re taking in each month,” Buttigieg said.

“Building transit and affordable housing alongside each other can be transformational for communities and families.”

Expanding affordable housing through an infrastructure plan is a primary focus of Biden’s proposal. The president’s American Jobs Plan would allocate $213 billion in tax credits, federal spending and grants meant to create and repair 2 million affordable homes.

Fudge stressed the importance of tackling an affordable housing shortage made significantly worse by the coronavirus pandemic, which has driven housing prices to staggering highs while limiting the construction of new homes.

“A secure and stable home represents more than four walls and a roof,” Fudge said, arguing that expanding affordable housing is crucial to improving health, educational and economic outcomes for struggling Americans.

“To pass an infrastructure plan that fails to address our affordable housing crisis would be akin to building a road that leads to nowhere.”

Biden has met several times over the past few weeks with Senate Republicans willing to cut a deal on a package to repair roads, bridges, waterways and railroads and to expand broadband.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the panel’s ranking Republican and a member of the GOP infrastructure group, said Thursday he was “encouraged” by recent progress toward a deal. But Toomey — and the hearing in general — also highlighted the depth of disagreements impeding a deal.

Toomey highlighted three red lines that GOP lawmakers have long said they’re unwilling to cross: the package needs to focus on traditional infrastructure, must be fully paid for and cannot touch the 2017 Republican tax-cut law.

“What Congress shouldn’t do is spend more taxpayer dollars to achieve liberal wish lists that expand the welfare state,” he said, citing Biden’s housing proposal as a prime example.

“Let’s be clear: housing is housing. People certainly need housing, but housing is not infrastructure.”

Democrats and Republicans have been in a semantic squabble for months over the meaning of infrastructure. The Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers insist that housing is an integral part of U.S. infrastructure and should be a priority in a package meant to improve it, though Republicans remain unconvinced.

“I view infrastructure as the foundation that makes it possible for Americans to live a life of their choosing,” Buttigieg said.

“My hope is that even if we agree to disagree on a philosophical question about what to call something, we have a good chance to agree on good policies that will make a difference for the American people.”

Even so, the divides among Democrats and Republicans over housing policy have implications far beyond what makes it into an eventual infrastructure bill, regardless of whether it has bipartisan support.

Housing prices have risen at rates and to levels akin to run-up to the 2007 foreclosure crisis, preventing many families from buying homes in a torrid housing market. The economic devastation of the pandemic also forced millions of Americans into forbearance programs and the protection of eviction bans who could be left without homes once those safeguards are gone.

“It’s becoming too expensive to buy a home in Arizona,” said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). Home prices in Phoenix rose 17.4 percent year over year in April, the fastest rate of any U.S. metro areas. 

“We must ensure that our communities have the resources to provide safe, stable housing and other vital wraparound services that can help folks get back on their feet.”

Both sides acknowledge that the nationwide shortage of affordable housing poses serious issues for low and middle-income Americans, who have largely taken the hardest hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. But there is little agreement among Democrats and Republicans on how to tackle the problem.

While there is solid bipartisan support for measures such as loosening zoning laws and other regulations that make it harder to build affordable houses, Democrats say a massive investment in public housing is also essential to help stop the bleeding.

Biden’s proposal includes $40 billion to build and repair public housing among its other investments in affordable housing. Advocates have praised Biden’s proposal as a solid but insufficient step toward eliminating the $70 billion backlog in repairs to public housing.

Republicans instead want to focus on spurring more housing construction by lowering taxes, cutting other regulations and allocating more money toward voucher programs instead of public housing.

“Another massive spending package before we even reach appropriations season will only serve to accelerate inflation and serve to make the cost of housing even more unaffordable for lower-income families,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.).

Several GOP senators also argued that taking measures to expand affordable housing will limit, not improve, the ability of struggling Americans to eventually own a home.

“In many, many cases, public housing has become places where people don’t really want to live. There are notorious stories of concentrations of poverty and crime and other social ills,” Toomey said. 

Fudge responded that while public housing may be less than ideal, it’s far better than letting more Americans fall into housing insecurity or homelessness.

“You know what, senator, I agree with you 100 percent. The problem is that we have people who live in public housing and we do not have enough housing for the demand, and so we still have to take care of the people,” she said.

“Even though I agree that we do need to find ways to move people into other housing within communities with better opportunities, we still have to deal with the issue we currently have.”

Tags Joe Biden Kyrsten Sinema Marcia Fudge Pat Toomey Pete Buttigieg Steve Daines

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