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Analysis: George H.W. Bush’s Tenuous Approach to Housing Policy

Phil Hall
Dec 03, 2018
Five days after he insisted that he would go forward with President Trump’s plan to nominate him for a seat on the Federal Reserve Board, Herman Cain has opted to take himself out of consideration

The death of George H.W. Bush has brought renewed attention to his presidency’s foreign policy endeavors and his tumultuous approach to domestic policy, including a controversial reversal of his 1988 campaign pledge that he would never raise taxes. Less attention was given to Bush’s approach to federal housing policy—a subject that gave him a flurry of notice early in his political career, but which later became a less significant aspect of his White House years.
Efforts to ensure federal protection against housing discrimination helped Bush gain a degree of notoriety in 1968 when he was a freshman congressman representing the Texas 7th District. Bush unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate from Texas in 1964 by campaigning against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, and his constituents were overwhelmingly opposed to the Fair Housing Act of 1968–Bush later claimed only two of the 500 letters he received from voters were supportive of the legislation. But Bush reversed his previous opposition to federal civil rights protections and ignored the majority opinion from his district and voted in favor of the bill. His decision ultimately did not impact his career, as Bush won re-election that year.
Once in the White House as President, Bush did not give housing a heavy degree of attention. He signed the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989, which was created in the aftermath of the savings and loan crisis, but was not involved in the law’s creation. He appointed Jack Kemp, a conservative New York congressman and a rival to Bush for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination, as his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but the two men had a contentious relationship. Kemp’s attempts to promote the concept of enterprise zones and encouraging public housing tenants to buy their apartments were rebuffed by Bush and his economic advisers, and by the end of the administration Kemp was openly questioning Bush’s policies—even going so far as to publicly state that some of the Bush economic policy outlined in the 1992 State of the Union Address were nothing more than “gimmicks.”
Nonetheless, there were periods when Bush gave priority to housing and his HUD chief. In 1990, he tasked Kemp with creating the Advisory Commission on Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing, which sought to remove “excessive rules, regulations and red tape that add unnecessarily to the cost of housing.” Bush’s National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing offered privatization proposals that Bill Clinton’s administration would later adapt. Bush also sought to encourage a greater degree of volunteerism in housing-focused issues via his "Points of Light" initiativaxe, but this often seemed to be a vague attempt at replacing federal input with individual and nonprofit altruism.
One of Bush’s final acts as president relating to housing was the signing of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992. The law, which was signed by Bush on Oct. 28, 1992, amended the Housing Act of 1937 and offered several new options including HUD’s ability to issue public and Section 8 housing tenant preference rules and to extend certain exemptions from waiting list requirements and eligibility restrictions based on income eligibility.

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