Published June 15, 2015
How has the Obama administration’s radically transformative Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) regulation—released in preliminary form nearly two years ago—largely escaped public scrutiny until now?
AFFH will dramatically undercut the independence of local governments, will mean significant population transfers across metropolitan areas, and will force densified development on suburbs and cities alike. Last week, by passing an amendment authored by Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar, House Republicans moved to starve the Department of Housing and Urban Development of the funds required to enforce the rule. Also, last week at a congressional hearing, HUD Secretary Julian Castro, widely touted as Hillary Clinton’s most likely vice-presidential running mate, was sharply questioned about AFFH by Utah Congresswoman Mia Love. If all that’s not news, what is? Yet the mainstream media has been missing in action on this issue since the preliminary version of AFFH was promulgated in July of 2013. Why?
The answer is that President Obama understands how politically explosive AFFH is, and is at pains to enact it as quietly as possible. Meanwhile, a thoroughly biased and compliant press plays along.
My 2012 book on Obama’s anti-suburban policies, Spreading the Wealth, highlighted several admissions of stealth by advocates and scholars sympathetic to the Obama administration. But that was three years ago, and a year before the initial draft of AFFH was released. So it’s helpful now to find a video confession by a sympathetic observer of the Obama administration’s policies to the effect that, when it comes to AFFH, stealth is the order of the day.
The video in question is of a June 1, 2015 Brookings Institution event, “Place Opportunity and Social Mobility: What Now for Policy?” Brookings, by the way, is ground zero for the Obama administration’s anti-suburban “regionalist” policies. Brookings specialists help stock Obama’s HUD with pro-regionalist bureaucrats; and Brookings fellows help to build stealthily regionalist policies into Obama administration initiatives. Obama’s only serious public foray into urban-suburban issues during his first term came in an important 2009 Brookings Institution address that received virtually no press coverage.
The June 1, 2015 Brookings event on “Place and Opportunity” was streamed on video by 30 officials at HUD and 9 officials from the Seattle Housing Authority, a national center of regionalist policies. The section of the video of particular interest comes in the form of a comment by event host, Brookings Fellow Richard Reeves, on remarks by panelist Margery Austin Turner. Turner, senior vice president for Program, Planning, and Management at the Urban Institute, is also a former deputy assistant secretary for research at HUD, and so (as Reeves points out) was addressing many of her former HUD colleagues online. What we’re seeing on video, then, is not an isolated opinion, but evidence of the state of mind of the core advocates and officials who shape the Obama administration’s housing policies.
The key exchange comes between 1:21:08 and 1:23:59 on the video. In response to a question from Reeves about what “getting serious” about housing policy would mean, Turner cites AFFH, arguing that the rule could bring “incredibly important” changes to America. Slyly, she acknowledges that AFFH isn’t so much enforcing the original legal obligation to “affirmatively further fair housing,” as it is changing our understanding of what that obligation means. (In other words, AFFH is stretching a directive to prevent discrimination into a mandate for social engineering.) Turner then says that it would take decades for AFFH to fully transform society along the lines she desires. (I’d add that the rule won’t take nearly that long to gut local government in America.)
What’s interesting is that when Turner finishes her discussion of AFFH by saying that the rule “sounds very obscure, but I think it could be hugely important,” Reeves breaks in and says: “Perhaps it’s important to keep [the AFFH rule] sounding obscure in order to get it through.” (In other words, to get the AFFH rule enacted before public opposition and congressional Republicans can block it, we’ve got to keep its existence and importance quiet.) At this point, the audience laughs sympathetically. Then Reeves adds: “Sometimes obscurity is the best political strategy, particularly in this area.”
You don’t often see a direct admission by AFFH advocates that they are trying to fly under the political and media radar, but here it is—and at a Brookings event that Reeves himself emphasizes was being streamed by bureaucrats at HUD. Reeves clearly has no worries that his call for stealth might stir outrage from the 30 Obama administration officials listening in.
Another revealing section of the video comes between 42:30 and 48:24 when we hear from Emily Badger, a staff writer at The Washington Post. Not only is Badger an enthusiastic advocate of precisely the sort of policies represented by AFFH, but she’s clearly aware of how politically awkward the topic is. So why won’t the mainstream press fairly report—or indeed report at all—on the sweeping ambitions of AFFH? If Badger is any indication, the press has refused to do its job because it is thoroughly on the side of AFFH’s advocates, and is complicit in their plans to keep this issue out of the public eye.
Why wasn’t Reeves ashamed to call for keeping AFFH quiet, in front of a reporter for The Washington Post? And why didn’t Badger write a story, say, about the stealthy ways of AFFH supporters? Obviously, it’s because Badger is herself an advocate of AFFH, and holds that interest above her obligations as a reporter.
It’s also notable that Margery Turner begins her remarks on AFFH by revealing that “any week now” HUD will promulgate the rule in its final form. (Remember, the panel was held on June 1, 2015.) This is consistent with the last week’s report in The Hill that AFFH is “due out this month.” Turner is an insider, so her prediction carries weight. A release toward the end of June, in the hopes that the July 4 holiday and summer vacation will dampen public attention, seems likely. (Or will the unexpected wave of publicity among conservatives over the past week frighten the Obama administration into yet another delay?)
In any case, the lesson here is clear. Don’t take silence on the part of the media or the administration as an indication of how significant AFFH is. As Turner herself says, despite its apparent obscurity, AFFH is “incredibly important.” And when the mainstream press finally gets around to reporting on AFFH, treat them not as fair-minded observers, but as the advocates-in-reporters-clothing they are.