Is Julian Castro Serious About Affordable Housing?

Last week, Julian Castro gave his first major speech as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development before an audience at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. The speech was conspicuously short on details on how he planned to address the problems facing his department, but rich in rah-rah booster talk that one associates with sentimental movies about coaches guiding come-from-behind sports teams.

“It’s time to remove the stigma associated with promoting homeownership,” he said. “When done responsibly, it strengthens communities and boosts our economy.”

I am not certain when or where the promotion of homeownership earned a stigma – when I last checked, it was still the American Dream. But what Castro failed to mention was that it is difficult to promote homeownership when people cannot afford to buy a house.

For confirmation of that sad fact, Castro and his Bipartisan Policy Center audience did not have to look very far. A recent article published in the Washington City Paper cited data from the District of Columbia’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer that found 27.3 percent of single-family homes sold in Washington in July sold for at least $1 million. During the first half of this year, 18.6 percent of single-family homes in the nation’s capital sold for at least $1 million.

Aaron Wiener, City Paper’s housing reporter, covered this story with a bit of commentary that deserves to be shared: “[In] a city with a pressing need for affordable housing, the seven-figure prices for single-family homes – many of them rowhouses that just a few years ago would’ve sold for half that – don’t just squeeze middle-class residents who might have tried to buy these houses. They also keep upping the incentive for developers to buy up once-cheap properties, which may have earlier served as apartments or townhomes for working-class Washingtonians, and rehab them as, well, million-dollar houses, or a few half-million-dollar condos. If the trend continues without redoubled efforts to preserve affordable housing, diverse sections of town could quickly become enclaves of the wealthy.”

That scenario is hardly unique to Washington. With very few exceptions, the nation’s major metropolitan markets have seen no expansion of affordable housing inventory over the past decade, making it harder and harder for too many individuals – not only working-class, but also middle-class and recent college graduates just starting their careers – to buy into the American dream. The situation has become worse since 2008, when a toxic combination of a frayed economy, excessive regulation and insensitive government agencies (both federal, state and local) created the worst shortage of affordable housing since the Great Depression.

It is no secret that Castro got his job for reasons that have nothing to do with his knowledge of housing policy. But if he is going to succeed at his duties, he is going to need to spare us the canned platitudes on the value of homeownership and offer a vigorous leadership strategy that directly addresses the problems that continue to ensure the lack of availability of affordable housing.

However, if Castro’s speech is any indication, he doesn’t quite seem to get the right idea. When he touched upon the concept of affordable housing, he focused instead on public housing projects – not the same thing. And Castro went off on a weird tangent by taking charge of an effort to give everyone Internet access. “Over the next two-and-a-half years, I’m going to place a special focus on expanding broadband access,” he insisted.

Our Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is more interested in online access than affordable housing? Wake me when January 2017 rolls around!

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