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The largest increase for housing and community development in the latest federal spending bill came from earmarks, where lawmakers direct funding to specific projects in their states.
People have been moving away from parts of Columbus, Mississippi, in recent years, leaving behind empty houses with sheets of plywood covering doors and windows.
The city’s mayor, Keith Gaskin, said in an email that about 2,300 homes—or nearly a fifth of the homes in the city—are now sitting vacant, creating what he described as urban blight that’s increasing crime and reducing property values for people who have stayed behind. “Our declining population has slowly changed the appearance of our community,” he said.
Meanwhile, nearly 1,000 miles to the northeast, the Riverside neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware, is dealing with similar struggles that, according to community activists there, reflect systemic racism and the nation’s legacy of discriminatory housing policy.
After World War II, white veterans returning home used benefits under the GI Bill to buy houses built in the neighborhood, said Jen Lienhard, spokeswoman for the WRK Group, a coalition of groups including REACH Riverside, that’s working to revitalize the area.
But, Lienhard explained, the GI Bill was structured in a way that did not help as many Black veterans, boxing them out of home purchases and fueling economic inequality.
Now, both places could soon see a boost from so-called earmarks, where a portion of federal spending is set aside for members of Congress to send back to their states for specific projects.
At a time when communities across the country are contending with crisis-level housing shortages, lawmakers chose to more than double the amount of earmarks for building affordable housing in places like Riverside or revitalizing neighborhoods like in Columbus, with the $1.7 trillion “omnibus” spending package Congress passed last month.
While $1.4 billion in earmarks went to the Department of Housing and Urban Development last year, the amount rose to $2.9 billion this year, according to an analysis by the National Council of State Housing Agencies. That $1.5 billion increase made up the biggest boost in funding in the omnibus deal for HUD programs, according to the analysis.
The next biggest increase, according to the analysis, was a $420 million bump for homeless assistance grants, from $3.2 billion to $3.6 billion.
This added funding comes at a time when the future of earmarks is up in the air, as the House’s new Republican majority vows to slash government spending.
Among roughly 1,500 housing and community development earmarks, is $2.5 million for a program in which the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board subsidizes home buying costs, but keeps the price of those homes low for future buyers by limiting the amount they can be resold for. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, requested that funding.
Another $5 million, requested by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, is going to Milwaukee County to rehabilitate foreclosed properties and prioritize selling them to first-time homebuyers.
One million dollars requested by Republican Utah Rep. Burgess Owens would go toward upgrading the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system at a Salt Lake City housing site for disabled and formerly homeless people. That more efficient, “Net Zero” system will help to cut heating and cooling costs by about half, a spokesman for the local housing authority said.
Mississippi Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, both Republicans, requested $3 million dollars to help Columbus acquire vacant and dilapidated properties and then, if necessary, demolish them to create “a blank slate for redevelopment” and “restore a sense of pride in Main Street and various low and moderate-income neighborhoods,” said Gaskin, the mayor.
Meanwhile, Delaware’s Democratic senators, Chris Coons and Tom Carper, are sending $6.8 million to support a $300 million project called the Real Estate Strategy to Obtain Racial Equity to help revitalize Wilmington’s Riverside neighborhood.
Lienhard said the money will help to build a new community center and to bring a grocery store to the neighborhood. The money will also support Wilmington Housing Authority efforts to replace older subsidized housing in the area and to buy land to develop a homeownership program for lower-income people, Lienhard said.
In Tacoma, Washington, about 1,430 of the estimated 2,287 homeless people in surrounding Pierce County live in the city. But with only around 1,005 beds in Tacoma’s shelters, the city has a shortage of upwards of 400, Tacoma spokeswoman Maria Lee said in an email.
Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Derek Kilmer, both Washington Democrats, are sending $4 million in earmarks to the city to expand the downtown Tacoma Rescue Mission Men’s Shelter. The expansion, Lee said, will allow the shelter to accommodate 100 more people in normal times–doubling how many people it can hold.
“This construction will significantly increase capacity to serve those who are most in need in Tacoma,” the city’s mayor, Victoria Woodards, said in a statement.
In Beaverton, Oregon, Jen Hale Christy, chief of staff to Mayor Lacey Beaty, said the city shelters the homeless in a community center only when there’s severe weather, but there is no place for them to stay year-round.
But another $3 million earmark, won by Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, will help address that issue, providing money to buy and renovate a building to house 60 homeless people year-round, Christy said.
Whether as much money will be available for lawmakers to send back to their communities next year is up in the air. Many Republicans voiced outrage at the amount of omnibus earmarks.
“We’re spending money we don’t have to go home and sell your projects, go home and talk about all the pork you’re bringing home,” said Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican on the House floor. Roy did not request any earmarks.
But Coons, former executive of New Castle County, Delaware, defended earmarks. “One of the best uses of appropriations, when we invest in towns and cities across Delaware, is to focus on funding communities that have traditionally been underserved and disenfranchised.”
Wicker also sees a need for earmarks. He said in a statement to Route Fifty that he sifts through “countless” requests for help from communities in his state, because they “are not able to access federal assistance through existing programs.”
Angering some on the right are earmarks going to projects they see as advancing “the Left’s extreme agenda” and funding “woke” projects, as Matthew Dickerson, a senior policy advisor at the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Grover M. Hermann Center for the Federal Budget, wrote in a recent blog post.
Dickerson cited as an example $3 million in earmarks that will be spent on the creation of an American LGBTQ Museum in New York City that “celebrates the dynamic histories and cultures of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.”
Despite those concerns, a House Republican aide confirmed to Route Fifty that a majority in a meeting of House Republicans in November backed including earmarks in next year’s budget.
Republicans, though, are likely to dial back the amount of earmark spending, Richard Stern, acting director of the Hermann Center, and Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the left-of-center Brookings Institution, both predicted in emails.
Meanwhile, Rep. Kay Granger, a Texas Republican who holds the future of earmarks as chairwoman of the House Appropriations chairman, told reporters she plans to “tweak” the earmark process but did not provide details.
Appropriations spokeswoman Sarah Flaim, in an email to Route Fifty, said Granger ”is working with leadership to come up with appropriate guardrails to ensure all requests for community project funding are a justifiable use of hard-earned taxpayer funds.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.