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Who Knew Housing Was So Popular?

Who Knew Housing Advocacy Was So Popular?

The Wall Street Journal takes a swipe today at ACORN, the longstanding housing advocacy group that stands to benefit from some $5 billion being doled out in the housing rescue bill. The money goes for foreclosure counseling, mortgage restructurings, and affordable housing efforts in hard-hit neighborhoods. Considering the scope of the mortgage crisis, this shouldn’t be controversial, but conservatives have a problem: ACORN also is leading an ambitious voter registration drive, aimed mainly at low-income and minority neighborhoods, which tend to vote Democratic. The Journal describes the group as an “important ally” in the Democratic effort to win the White House. Due in part to ACORN and to other apparently Democratic-leaning housing advocacy groups, Republicans and the White House opposed the inclusion in the bill of of an affordable housing trust fund and nearly $4 billion to help communities buy up foreclosed properties. But they gave up in the end.

All this is just plain silly. As the Journal notes, nothing ACORN is doing is particularly unusual:

Other groups spanning the political spectrum, ranging from the environmentalist League of Conservation Voters to Republican-friendly faith-based groups and the National Rifle Association, also do voter registration. They often target like-minded voters while endorsing candidates through separate entities. The faith-based groups, like the housing groups, also have gotten public money.

As the bill’s main backer, Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, pointed out: “People who build affordable housing tend to support the Democrats… who support affordable housing. I’m a lot less worried about this relationship than I am about the Pentagon and Lockheed.” Frank said the money is supposed to go for affordable housing work, not voter registration drives. ACORN also says it restricts the use of the funds to housing alone.

I’m actually amused at ACORN’s housing arm and other housing advocacy groups suddenly being considered big shot players in the political world, considering that no one usually pays any attention to them — except on the voter registration side, in that one instance in Missouri where the now-disgraced acting U.S. attorney Bradley Schlozman charged ACORN with voter fraud on the eve an election, which got him a one-way ticket to a Senate Judiciary Committee for a public thumping. Not surprisingly, ACORN wasn’t engaged in voter fraud, just regular voter registration in the state. Under normal circumstances, though, their housing work does not end up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, or any other media outlet. Housing advocates I’ve known are talented people who work hard at jobs with modest pay, with little attention, because they believe that people deserve a decent place to live. Last week, at the Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America event in downtown Washington, I talked with Abimael Lorenzo, a NACA representative working on loan restructurings. He’d been up until midnight the night before, and by 4 p.m. was on his sixth client. He was still cheerful. I assumed he worked for NACA, but I was wrong. He was a volunteer, using his vacation time from his job as a member the ground crew of Jet Blue in Boston to help with loan restructurings. He was there, he said, to help people save their homes and get their financial lives back in order. But that was it. There was so much work to do there that the idea of anyone having a political discussion about anything was absurd; on the ground, in the housing advocacy world, where there are often too few counselors and too many people to help, it doesn’t work that way.

The Journal also explains that housing advocacy groups have to qualify and compete for the money in the bill. So if Republicans don’t want ACORN getting those funds, they can do what they should have been doing all along: Organizing at the grass-roots level to improve housing for the poor. Nothing’s stopping them from competing with ACORN; isn’t that what free enterprise is all about? When advocating for low-income housing becomes a priority for conservatives, instead of say, lobbying for the NRA, they’ll have a fair chance at the funds. Until then, you can’t complain if you haven’t even had a player in the game.

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