Tag: hud

More HUD Community Development Duds

Local officials, like their federal and state counterparts, spend other people’s money. Policymakers are naturally unlikely to spend other people’s money as carefully as they would their own. This situation is exacerbated when local officials spend money obtained from federal taxpayers. At least when local taxpayers foot the bill, they have an incentive to keep an eye on how their money is spent. That incentive is largely nonexistent when the money comes from Washington.

HUD community development programs illustrate what happens when the federal government severs the relationship between local officials and local taxpayers. Originally targeted to large cities in decline, community development funding is spread widely to communities rich and poor, large and small.

Local officials love these programs because they amount to a free lunch. As a result, they lobby Washington hard for these subsidies, which means federal policymakers generally only hear wonderful tales of the “economic growth” and “job creation” fostered by the programs. However, a Cato essay on HUD community development programs explains that in addition to complexity and wasteful bureaucracy, these programs are susceptible to financial abuses.

Recent stories in the news provide further evidence.

First, years of mismanaging federal community development funds have caught up to the City of Buffalo. The Buffalo News reports that a HUD inspector general audit says the city “could not provide assurance that more than $20.1 million in transactions was properly accounted for.” According to the article, the audit findings are not surprising:

An investigation published in The News in 2004 found the city had frittered away much of its block grant money through parochial politics and bureaucratic ineptitude.

More than half the spending went to “soft costs” that include covering bad loans, paying city salaries and subsidizing an overblown network of neighborhood agencies, The News found. Relatively little went to brick-and-mortar projects, and what was spent to revitalize downtown and neighborhoods was haphazard, with money sometimes going to risky and futile projects.

The mayor and Common Council failed to make major reforms in the program in recent years, and problems have persisted. Two years ago, a HUD monitoring report found continued shortcomings that included too much spending on bureaucrats, questionable financing for upscale housing developments and sloppy fiscal management of several programs.

Next, LA Weekly reports that the City of Los Angeles plans to give $1 million in federal community development funds to the global architecture firm designing the downtown’s proposed NFL football stadium:

Gensler plans to move from Santa Monica to downtown L.A., where it will use the $1 million in federal community-development block grant funds to create a hip, new atmosphere for its relocated employees at the “jewel box,” a three-story building nestled between two skyscrapers at City National Plaza.

Unfortunately, the “hip, new atmosphere” paid for by federal taxpayers probably won’t be the “job creator” that city officials are claiming:

[Mayor] Villaraigosa and City Council members since February have claimed that enticing Gensler from Santa Monica to downtown L.A. is a job creator. But that’s debatable. Some temporary jobs will be created for the jewel box renovation, but Gensler is moving its offices just 20 miles. Many economists would describe L.A.’s action as merely shifting jobs within an intricately intertwined economic area.

A HUD official called the situation “entirely healthy.”

Finally, HUD recently informed the City of Montebello (California) that it had uncovered 31 violations regarding the city’s use of HOME program funds, which are to be used for affordable housing. According to the Whittier Daily News, the report “was so damning it brought interim city administrator Peter Cosentini to tears”:

Last year, HUD demanded that Montebello repay $1.3 million because the city gave a developer HOME money to help build a housing project with affordable units and reported to the federal agency the project was complete, but construction hasn’t started. And a key document submitted to HUD appeared to have been forged, according to the report.

In February, HUD notified city officials that Montebello must also repay nearly $900,000 it used to purchase another parcel of land. The city failed to give HUD needed documents on the property acquisition, including an appraisal, documentation of expenditures and current ownership, according to a Feb. 18 letter from [HUD official] Vasquez to the city.

Cosentini responded in writing, saying city staff has been sent to training as recommended by HUD. Montebello is also conducting an internal investigation into the possible document forgery. The city’s internal investigation of the $1.3 million has been slowed because the developer isn’t cooperating and is “stonewalling” city staff, he wrote. Cosentini also asked for more time to repay the money.

But the city missed a March 1 deadline to submit a repayment plan, according to a letter from Vasquez. And HUD will seek an additional repayment of $2.7 million, Cosentini wrote in the memo.

Take heart federal taxpayers – Montebello city bureaucrats are being “sent to training” per HUD’s recommendation!

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing the Federal Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

  • Sen. Rand Paul bucks the trend of wimpy spending cut proposals with a more serious plan.
  • Perhaps Charlie Sheen’s agent should consider getting him a gig with HUD.
  • A Senate Democrat supports a plan that would focus on spending cuts and not tax increases.
  • Policymakers should roll back the punishing regulations and taxes that make it difficult for businesses of all races and sizes to succeed.
  • Federal energy policy, Newt Gingrich, and “rank gooberism.”

HUD ‘Failing the Taxpayers’

That’s what the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s recently retired inspector general had to say in response to rampant malfeasance and mismanagement at public housing authorities uncovered by a joint investigation by ABC News and The Center for Public Integrity.

From the report:

The problems are widespread, from an executive in New Orleans convicted of embezzling more than $900,000 in housing money around the time he bought a lavish Florida mansion to federal funds wrongly being spent to provide housing for sex offenders or to pay vouchers to residents long since dead.

Despite red flags from its own internal watchdog, HUD has continued to plow fresh federal dollars into these troubled agencies, including $218 million in stimulus funds since 2009, the joint investigation found.

The report singles out Philadelphia’s public housing authority, which HUD reportedly considers to be a “model agency.” The Philadelphia Housing Authority’s outgoing executive director, who was paid $300,000 a year, had “spent lavishly on parties that included belly dancers, and had used more than $500,000 in housing authority funds to secretly settle claims accusing him of inappropriate sexual advances with female employees.”

Here’s the former director of the “model agency” channeling his inner Charlie Sheen on the taxpayer’s dime:

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) doesn’t understand how HUD could have missed the problems:

“We expect that the agency in Washington, D.C. ought to be making sure that every taxpayer dollar is spent in a responsible way. And it seems to me that we have not had that proper oversight,” Grassley said.

Really, Senator? As a Cato essay on HUD scandals illustrates, the agency has been plagued by mismanagement and corruption since its inception. HUD has never made sure every taxpayer dollar was “spent in a responsible way.” And it never will for the simple fact that a government agency has little incentive to ensure that money coerced from taxpayers isn’t wasted. In contrast, a private charity with a record like HUD would see its voluntary donations dry up.

See this Cato for more on public housing subsidies and why they should be abolished.

Earmarks and Federal Grants

Federal taxpayers helping foot the tab for renovations to a local wine bar? It sounds crazy, but that’s par for the course with HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program.

A Connecticut newspaper recently ran an article on CDBG money being used to spruce up storefronts in the town of Putnam:

The Small Cities Community Development Block Grant money slated for Cohen’s building comes shortly after a similar grant project finished across the street, said Economic Development Director Delpha Very.

Facade improvements to the Glimpse of Gaia florist, Pangaea Wine Bar and Panache consignment shop finished last month, said building owner Sean Marchionte, of Providence-based Blue Dog Investments.

The building’s owner – go figure – thinks it’s just great:

“It’s very encouraging when you get help from the town. That’s what helps developers like myself make improvements to our buildings, attract tenants and keep the economic ball rolling in the right direction,” he said.

First, the help came from federal taxpayers – not the town. Second, robbing from Peter to pay Paul, which is what federal grant programs accomplish, does not keep the “economic ball rolling.”

The building owner either does not recognize – or does not care – that when the government picks winners, it also creates losers. And as is unfortunately all too common when it comes to local reporting, the uncritical nature of article results in a de facto press release for the economic planners in Washington.

Last week I discussed why it’s time to move beyond the anti-earmark crusade. As I explained, earmarks are a symptom of a deeper problem: the existence of programs that enable the federal government to spend money on properly local activities:

There just isn’t much difference between the activities funded via earmarking and the activities funded by standard bureaucratic processes. The means are different, but the ends are typically the same: federal taxpayers paying for parochial benefits that are properly the domain of state and local governments, or preferably, the private sector. As a federal taxpayer, I’m no better off if the U.S. Dept. of Transportation decides to fund a bridge in Alaska or if Alaska’s congressional delegation instructs the DOT to fund the bridge.

In a related op-ed, I cited the example of the $8 billion CDBG program, which provides grants to localities for a range of development projects such as parking lots, museums and street repairs – the same sorts of activities that members of Congress are fond of funding with earmarks:

Just as earmarks have achieved notoriety for wasteful and ineffective spending, community development programs funded through traditional means have had the same problem…

Even if CDBG funds went entirely to “worthy” projects, federal funding is still an inefficient way to foster local economic development because of the excessive bureaucracy that results from funneling money through multiple levels of government.

Federal administration costs are about 5 percent of the value of CDBG grants, with local and state governments taking a 17 percent and 8 percent cut, respectively. A large share of the CDBG budget disappears before any actual work is done.

See this Cato essay for more on community development programs at HUD, including the CDBG program.

Reflections on a Mortgage Summit

Yesterday the Treasury and HUD hosted a “Conference on the Future of Mortgage Finance.”  It was an invite-only of Washington insiders.  Somehow I found myself on the invite list, which was almost enough to make me believe that the Administration was finally serious about reforming Fannie and Freddie.

After getting over the nausea of being in a room full of people who I personally knew bore some responsibility for the mess we are in, I was then shocked that, compared to the rest of the room, Treasury Secretary Geithner came across as the radical.  On one hand Geithner was very clear that the Administration was going to push for some sort of government guarantee, but also that the current structure, particularly Fannie and Freddie, were broken.  He also went as far as admitting that Fannie and Freddie were a cause of the crisis.

Such statements only became radical in contrast to the rest of the room.  Maybe about 80 percent of the attendees were blindly and violently attached to the status quo.  Most offensive to those us who fight for free markets was that the industry representatives were the most vocal advocates for the status quo.  To even suggest that lenders should bear the risk of loans they make was crazy to this group.  It was a clear reminder that being pro-market and pro-business are generally two very different things.   In fairness, not all lenders were busy plotting to find ways to profit while dumping their risk onto the taxpayer; some, such as Wells Fargo, were far more supportive of the private sector actually bearing the risk.

Most of those who were not industry insiders were housing and community advocates.  While this group did seem a little less self-interested, they appear to have learned little about the risks of over-expanding homeownership.  Repeatedly, access to homeownership, as if it could solve every social ill, was pushed as the primary goal.  A few dissenters reminded us that rental is a viable option too, although they were mainly looking to continue/expand Fannie and Freddie’s support of the multifamily rental market.

If the Administration was hoping that this group was going to come up with answers, then they must have been sorely disappointed.  If Obama is serious about taking the taxpayer off the hook for risk in the mortgage market, then he is going to have to take on the special interests.  My fear is that the event was just the beginning of how health care reform played out:  cut a deal with the industry, pay off the Democratic base, and screw the taxpayer.  Let’s hope we actually see some change on this one.

“Smart Growth” from a Dumb Agency

The same federal agency that brought us monumental failures like public housing wants to play a bigger role in fostering so-called regional “smart growth.” HUD secretary Shaun Donovan recently traveled to Portland, Oregon to announce the Obama administration’s new Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities.

This new bureaucracy will distribute $140 million in grants for regional “smart growth” planning:

With OSHC’s grant programs, HUD will provide funding to a wide variety of multi-jurisdictional and multi-sector partnerships and consortia, from Metropolitan Planning Organizations and State governments, to non-profit and philanthropic organizations. These grants will be designed to encourage regions to build their capacity to integrate economic development, land use, transportation, and water infrastructure investments, and to integrate workforce development with transit-oriented development. Accordingly, OSHC’s grants will be coordinated closely with the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Donovan told a Portland State University crowd that “We at HUD are big admirers of what you’re doing here.” However, Randal O’Toole’s dismantling of the Portland planning utopia myth in a Cato Policy Analysis shows that the city is nothing to be emulated. That is unless other cities want less affordable housing, more congestion, higher taxes, and businesses relocating elsewhere.

Donovan then met up with his EPA and DOT colleagues in Seattle at smart growth conference. HUD isn’t the only one opening up the taxpayer’s wallet:

And the Department of Transportation is proposing $527 million to promote “livable communities” through grants to states and cities. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood says those grants, too, must meet the goals of his partner agencies.

LaHood: “It supports any new initiatives we develop on our own like expanding transit in low–income neighborhoods, or what our friends at HUD and EPA are working on in collaboration.”

Local coalitions are already forming to seek those federal dollars.

Let the rent-seeking begin.

The merits of Portland’s urban planning can be debated all day. But it stands federalism on its head when the federal government takes a particular city’s policies and then tries to shove it down the throats of the rest of the country. Based on what I know of Portland’s planning, I certainly wouldn’t want it where I live. Other cities, like Houston, have reached the same conclusion. But, I guess if Shaun Donovan likes it, then damnit, we’re all going to like it.

Monday Links

  • Michael D. Tanner on the Senate Sell-Outs: “At a time of 10.2 percent unemployment, they voted to make it more expensive to hire workers, especially low-wage workers. With the economy struggling, they voted for $485 billion in tax hikes. They voted to raise the payroll tax, limit your flexible spending account, and tax your health insurance plan. This is moderation?”