WASHINGTON, D.C.—When dawn broke Jan. 20, close to 2 million people were already on the move, streaming toward the U.S. Capitol to watch Barack Obama become president.
In a jaded city where a public outpouring of hopefulness seems like a quaint notion from the past, it was remarkable to watch the crowd as it filled the National Mall as far as I could see. Bundled in blankets and mufflers, we looked toward the Capitol, hanging on every word, each face full of anticipation and belief in the potential of this new beginning.
In his speech, Obama did not give us platitudes meant to win applause. He had already shown how far our nation has come from the days of slavery and racial division. He had shown what could be done when people put aside fear and cynicism to work toward a common goal. Now he told us it was time to look deeply at our character as a people and work hard, have faith, and overcome adversity, just as our forefathers did.
Of course, we have yet to see what Obama will achieve as president. He has made few promises about housing in general and has said almost nothing about affordable rental housing.
Economic stimulus legislation was the first order of business as Obama's term began. At press time, the bill was in flux but appeared likely to fall short of what's needed to help make full use of low-income housing tax credit allocations in today's moribund equity environment.
On the other hand, the final bill will probably include some direct spending for public housing repairs and upgrades, as well as supplemental funding for other housing and community development programs.
At this writing, Obama's greatest promise is his desire to make government work again. He took a big step in that direction by appointing former New York City Housing Commissioner Shaun Donovan to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The appointment was welcomed throughout our industry because of Donovan's calm professionalism and dedication. Obama was not paying off any political debt. Rather, he based his choice on merit, and for HUD, I believe that's the start of a long overdue overhaul of a very troubled agency.
The previous administration did its best to prove the Republican view that government is not a solution, but part of the problem. The previous HUD leadership was a disaster. They never intended to make government work well or to spend our tax money wisely. It's been a long time coming, but Washington is alive with a new spirit. There is sense that progress can be made, even at HUD, and that public service can be, once again, an honorable calling.
If you are one of the few holdouts who want to see Obama fail, or one of the many who think HUD is beyond saving, I ask you to do something old-fashioned. Show your patriotism. Give this president a chance, and rethink your prejudices about HUD. And if you haven't bothered to write to your members of Congress to support a proactive housing policy, now may be the time to do so.
Andre Shashaty is a writer, editor, and policy advocate with a focus on housing and urban issues. He is president of San Rafael, Calif.-based Partnership for Sustainable Communities. Founder of AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE, Shashaty served as editor and publisher for many years. He may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.