The rent is too damn high—so each year Congress appropriates billions of dollars to address the nation's collective housing needs. The programs vary from loans to tax credits to straight-up subsidies, but a common feature is that federal taxpayers pony up the dough and then a motley collection of state-level politicians, financing agencies, and housing authorities decide how it's spent. Can you guess where things go wrong?
In theory, oversight is provided by bureaucrats in Washington tracking every dollar and by local leaders increasing their re-election prospects by providing housing assistance to their constituents as effectively as possible. In practice, the feds turn a blind eye to inefficient uses of the funds while local officials gleefully engage in politically advantageous graft.
Take California Treasurer John Chiang. By virtue of his position on the three-member California Tax Credit Allocation Committee, Chiang exercises enormous influence over who gets $94.9 million each year in federal tax credits intended for developers of low-income housing.
He has used this position to great effect, steering millions to major campaign donors. These include Pacific West Communities, to whom Chiang has voted to give some $60 million in federal tax credits since 2007. The company has returned the favor with $37,000 in campaign contributions back to him. Some 82 California housing developments were funded with these tax credits in 2016.
If California-style corruption isn't your bag, perhaps you'll appreciate the sheer incompetence of the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA), which is currently struggling to get out of an expensive subsidy deal it literally forgot it made with local developer Integral. Over the past two decades, the AHA has awarded $114 million in federally funded loans to the company, which has yet to pay them back, and which now owes about $29 million in interest to the agency.
That did not stop former AHA chief Renee Glover from unilaterally agreeing to sell Integral $137 million worth of AHA-owned land for the bargain price of $20 million. Glover resigned in 2013, and the current leadership can't recall this deal ever being made. They're now suing to stop it from happening.
In Michigan, the state's housing finance agency was given $761 million in Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to protect distressed homeowners from foreclosure during the Great Recession. Instead of using the money as intended, officials sat on it while thousands in Detroit had their homes seized for failure to pay property taxes. When the state did start spending its bailout funds, half the total went toward demolishing the homes left vacant by those tax foreclosures.
But all of this pales in comparison to the misdeeds of the Navajo Housing Authority (NHA), which is supposed to provide housing on the Navajo Indian reservation. In the past decade, the NHA has received some $803 million in federal funding while building slightly over 1,000 homes. That works out to $723,000 per home, or about 10 times the median home price in the Navajo community of Kayenta, Arizona. Much of the money was spent on structures that were either never finished or never occupied, including a women's shelter that stood completed but empty for nearly 18 years while homeless people slept outside it.
All these examples of fraud, waste, and abuse are the natural result of separating the people paying for housing programs from the communities that are supposed to benefit from them. Federal functionaries have very weak incentives to ensure the program dollars are used well. The worst they usually have to worry about is for their failure as watchdogs to become a paragraph in a local news story or the subject of a little-read Government Accountability Office report.
State officials, meanwhile, have little to gain from providing better oversight. It's not their constituents picking up the tab, after all, and any misspent funds can be made up in next year's appropriations.
The ultimate way to avoid corruption or waste in government housing programs would be to eliminate the spending entirely. Since that seems unlikely, a sensible half-measure would be shifting to a system where the taxes that fund such programs are collected at the state and local level rather than by Washington.