Hiding Help In Financial Reform
The financial reform bill that the House will vote on Friday has become a dark horse for job creation and housing assistance. This isn't the result of the Obama job summit or even of the expanded ranks of regulators who will be hired as a result of the legislation. No, it's the result of good, old-fashioned political pressure.
The Congressional Black Caucus, quite rightly, has become increasingly concerned that the Obama administration is ignoring the populations - and places - that have been disadvantaged most by the recession. Despite a frighteningly high unemployment rate among minorities and a disparity between the black unemployment rate and that of all other races that grew last month while the unemployment rate itself declined, the administration has relied primarily on economy-wide measures to stimulate growth. These measures are pulling the economy out of recession but have left the financial stability of lower- and middle-income Americans of all stripes in danger.
The CBC responded by boycotting an important vote on the financial reform package in the House Financial Services Committee. While the move was aimed as much at the White House as the Committee itself, the consequence was the inclusion of several significant measures in the financial reform bill that target ordinary Americans who are suffering most from the housing crisis and economic downturn.
First, the manager's amendment of the reform bill appropriates $1 billion of TARP money for the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, part of the Community Development Block Grant program that is directed primarily at cities. The NSP, which was created and funded in 2008 and then again in the stimulus package, targets money to areas with high foreclosure rates for the purchase and rehabilitation of foreclosed homes. The rehabbed properties must be sold or rented to low- and very-low-income households. Similar to what former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill proposed in The New York Times, the program not only prevents the decline in property values that results from deteriorating abandoned and foreclosed homes, but can stimulate job creation in rehabilitation. (The NSP could even be a vehicle for President Obama's proposed "cash for caulkers" program.)
The other important addition to the financial reform bill is called the Emergency Mortgage Relief Program. The provision would provide loans of up to $50,000 to homeowners at risk of foreclosure who have been fired from a job. Although the President's foreclosure prevention plan has been more successful than former President Bush's, "documentation problems" and intractable lenders have severely limited the program's reach. Further, the President's plan, Making Home Affordable, failed to counter the real problem behind foreclosures, which have now moved beyond the subprime market to prime loans: unemployment. Based on a successful Pennsylvania model, the mortgage relief program would tide over homeowners at risk of foreclosure until they find a job. Though the unemployed are remaining jobless longer, the program is likely to prevent many from losing their homes or filing for bankruptcy.
The Congressional Black Caucus shined a light on the disconnect between the progress of the economy since the passage of the stimulus bill and the progress of most ordinary Americans. Ironically, a bill concerned primarily with the failures of the most powerful and wealthiest institutions helps remedy that disconnect.