Waters’ decades of housing work hangs in the balance in reconciliation cliffhanger

Housing spending provisions described as ‘transformative’ but bill’s fate remains up in the air

House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters attributes her long-standing interest in housing policy to her many moves as a child.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters attributes her long-standing interest in housing policy to her many moves as a child. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 28, 2021 at 12:26pm

House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters will have something to celebrate if Democrats can enact their $3.5 trillion reconciliation package: an unprecedented infusion of public money into housing and the culmination of decades of her work.

Waters’ committee this month advanced $327 billion in recommendations on housing provisions for the package. The bill still faces a precarious path as moderate Democrats publicly cast doubt on the topline spending number.

The California Democrat said she’s always been interested in housing, calling herself a “real looky-loo” when it comes to real estate. Waters attributes the early interest to frequent moves throughout her childhood to accommodate a growing family — she’s the fifth of 13 children.

“One of the things that was interesting to me was the various kinds of houses we lived in, in St. Louis,” Waters said in an interview. “I think housing is important. I think it makes a difference in the way that children think about themselves and think about their value.”

There was the three-bedroom shotgun house her mother built without electricity or an indoor toilet; there was the stately but faded rental house with a basement and wooden pocket doors; and there was the house where she had her own room.

“That was pretty special to be able to have a room. I was able to collect my records: Sarah Vaughan and all those people I like to listen to. All this stuff was mine,” Waters said.

She also saw the dangers posed by dilapidated public housing developments where relatives lived. A friend of her younger brother was crushed riding the elevator in one of the projects, she said.

The reconciliation package would address rundown housing. The recommendations include $80 billion to tackle a backlog in repairs and $10 billion to remove lead paint and other health hazards.

It would also provide at least $82 billion to build new affordable units, $90 billion for tenant and project-based rental vouchers, $10 billion to help first-generation homebuyers with down payments and $6 billion to improve climate resiliency of homes, among other programs.

Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, called the package unprecedented.

“There’s never been a moment where there were such transformative investments on the table and there was a real potential to achieve them,” Yentel said.

A foreclosure crisis and pandemic

Waters’ housing push comes as an increasingly progressive Democratic Party is more open to big government expenditures on social programs than it has been in decades. The progressives see more spending on housing as consistent with more spending on health care, education and the care economy.

“People thought about housing in America as, that’s every individual’s responsibility. It’s up to you to figure out how to pay for it,” Waters said. “I don’t think there’s been a lot of concern about how we help people to be homeowners, even though that’s a part of our culture.”

Race has also played a major role in the underfunding of housing, Waters said.

“It was always kind of understood that there were ghettos, that people who lived there were poor people and that they couldn’t do any better, and it really wasn’t the government’s fault,” Waters said. “That was discrimination. That was racism.”

She said the 2008 housing crisis and the pandemic shifted Democrats’ views. The wave of foreclosures in the crisis forced lawmakers to think about the government’s role in homeownership differently, Waters said. She was chair of the Financial Services housing subcommittee at the time.

“All of a sudden, people were seeing this whole thing about housing differently,” Waters said. “That led us to what our government could do, to not only help people maintain their homes but also help people to get into homes.”

The pandemic also pushed lawmakers to change how government supports renters, Waters said, pointing to the eviction moratorium and $46.6 billion that Congress provided in December and March to keep tenants in their homes.

“I do think that COVID really unveiled how bad it is,” Waters said.

‘Housing is infrastructure’

Lisa Peto, principal at the public policy firm Mindset, credits Waters for building consensus among Democrats that housing should be considered infrastructure. Peto was chief counsel to the House Financial Services Committee until October 2020.

“When we first started trying to explain a few years ago that housing is infrastructure, we were met with a lot of confusion. It was not well-accepted that this belonged. It was because of her leadership that it is now considered part of the base package,” Peto said. “It was not a given a few years ago.”

Peto said Waters teamed up with advocacy groups and engaged party leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and later the Biden administration, and presented the case to the caucus.

“She really just tried to make a case wherever she could,” Peto said.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, chairman of the housing subcommittee, described Waters as “obsessed” about affordable housing.

“It’s hard to even describe it, her commitment,” Cleaver, D-Mo., said in an interview. “She never says, ‘Slow down, this is going too far.’ I mean, I still don’t know where too far is. All I know is I haven’t gotten there.”

Rep. French Hill, the subcommittee’s ranking member, said he has a good working relationship with Waters, although they disagree on policy.

“I appreciate her passion about housing, but I wish she’d be focused more on changing the policies and having more innovation, more efforts on lifting people out of poverty,” Hill, R-Ark., said in an interview. He cited the Rental Assistance Demonstration, an effort by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to convert public housing into privately managed, affordable Section 8 housing units, as a program that deserves more attention.

‘I'm worried about the Senate’

The reconciliation package is far from a sure thing. Democrats need all 50 of their members in the Senate to back the bill and have only slightly more wiggle room in the House. Moderates in both chambers have said the total spending is too high.

“I’m absolutely worried about it,” Waters said. “I’m worried about the Senate, and, yes, I’m worried about all of the money that we have organized. We’re going to fight very hard to keep it.”

Waters said she’s already negotiated with members of her party, resulting in spending that’s about half of her original $600 billion proposal in a housing bill introduced in July.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Yentel said any cuts should still leave remaining money concentrated on repairing public housing, building more homes for the lowest-income families and providing rental subsidies.

“If the housing investments end up being spread really thinly across dozens of programs, which Congress sometimes tends to do, then we really risk 10 years down the line having very little impact from these investments,” she said.

If Democrats fail to reach an agreement and the package falls apart, it would be devastating for housing, Yentel said.

“I can’t even bear to think about if we miss this opportunity,” Yentel said. “It will be years or maybe decades before we have such an opportunity again. We can’t let this opportunity pass us by.”