Politics and Governance

Building the Plane in Mid-Air: Reflections on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for Low-Income Housing in Texas

As the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 effectively came to an end in September of this year, many have begun to take stock of the massive stimulus package.  Much has been said of its positive attributes a la job creation, infrastructure improvement and housing market stability by the administration and its proponents.

Those proponents within the administration point to where citizens can find out for themselves the fiscal and job-creating impact of the stimulus package.  Others, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s staff, have criticized the perceived mismanagement of stimulus funds, citing a misrepresentation of data within

Still others, myself included, fall somewhere in the middle.  As service providers (specifically, a social service provider in my case), we tended to be initially grateful for the windfall in funding, then soon overwhelmed by the confluent administrative strictures and novel spending guidelines, time-consuming inter-agency collaboration, and complex performance reporting criteria that seemed to change with the days.

As one Housing and Urban Development field officer in the Austin area has said of the homelessness prevention stimulus in particular, the process has been much like building the plane in mid-air.

Similarly, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs Director Tim Irvine stated of the Weatherization Assistance Program stimulus, “When the federal government comes at you unannounced and throws $327 million at you and says, ‘Go create something and here’s a bunch of rules,’ it’s a real challenge.” This amount, which is roughly 25 times the amount that is typically appropriated through federal home weatherization dollars, went toward contracting laborers who upgraded the energy efficiency of many low- to middle-income residents of the state. These are residents who, despite having a lower income, often tend to spend disproportionately more on home heating and cooling costs if they live in older, less energy efficient homes.

To date, the program has surpassed the 11,482 households served in 2009 to weatherize a total of 38,000 households, according to comparisons reported to the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission and the Texas Tribune, respectively.  This many homes could not have been served with the TDHCA’s annual operating budget.

That brings me to my next point: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. When you look back at the ARRA funding levels for most state service providers and compare those to the funds that the same service providers are receiving in fiscal year 2012 from state and local coffers, our service capability looks bleak to say the least. According to the Texas House Appropriations Committee, the TDHCA’s home energy assistance budget overall is recommended to drop by just under $475 million—an 80 percent decrease between this year’s outlays and the next biennium.

So recently departed, when can we expect to see our friend, the federal stimulus again?  Given the current culture of austerity, it looks like we won’t see it again in the near future.

Local government agencies such as TDHCA as well as affiliated non-profits are adapting to this shortfall in part by utilizing “wrap-around” services — systems of programs working in concert with one another to provide more complete assistance.  For instance, as of now, virtually all weatherization program recipients in the state also receive Comprehensive Energy Assistance Program assistance, a state-based program that directly assists residents with home utility costs.

Regardless of where we may see the state of “federal stimulus” as an idea, and the likelihood of its return, if politics truly do operate in the 2-year cycle, we might do well to prepare recommendations for a more organized stimulus program now.  The next time around, a similar program should utilize a more realistic approach to reporting guidelines; one that does not unduly burden the overhead capacity of service delivery agencies at either the public and non-profit levels, so that these agencies can get down to the business of getting these services out of the door.

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