Next Monday, August 24th, North East Borough is holding a public hearing on how best to spend their Community Development Block Grant money. The question of whether or not to accept it in the first place isn't on the agenda. Maybe it should be.
A massive new federal regulation was just passed, with almost zero press coverage, on July 8th of this year known by the bureaucratic acronym of AFFH (Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing). Communities like North East, accepting Community Development Block Grant funds from the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), may find out they've stepped into a trap.
AFFH obligates any local jurisdiction that receives HUD funding to conduct a detailed analysis of its housing occupancy by race, ethnicity, national origin, English proficiency, and class (among other categories). Grantees must identify factors (such as zoning laws, public-housing admissions criteria, and “lack of regional collaboration”) that account for any imbalance in living patterns. Localities must also list “community assets” (such as quality schools, transportation hubs, parks, and jobs) and explain any disparities in access to such assets by race, ethnicity, national origin, English proficiency, class, and more. Localities must then develop a plan to remedy these imbalances, subject to approval by HUD. (emphasis added)
... by obligating all localities receiving HUD funding to compare their demographics to the region as a whole, AFFH effectively nullifies municipal boundaries ... It’s easy to miss the de facto absorption of local governments into their surrounding regions by AFFH, because the rule disguises it.
Isn't this about block grants? What's all this talk about regions?
You might have noticed there's something a little odd going on here, it's all about regions. You get some block grant money and next thing you know you have to compare your little town to the entire region and come up with a plan to correct imbalances and disparities. Huh? Does that even apply here in North East? Let's see, has anyone around here been talking about regional planning lately? Why yes, they have been.
They're making an offer we can refuse
North East is certainly not alone, in fact, every township and borough, every municipality accepting block grants, falls into the grip of the federal government to a degree not seen in, ... well, ... ever. North East Borough is planning to use the $85,000 it will receive in a block grant to build some sidewalks, curbs and ramps for the disabled, all fine things in themselves, but we need to seriously ask, is the trade off worth it? It seems borough officials are already falling in line, planning on comprehensive changes to the zoning ordinance.
Do local officials have any idea of what they're getting in to? Do residents know? Federal dollars always come with the unstated, but very real obligation to pay them back. In this case, all North East has to do is turn over ultimate authority in matters of planning and zoning to HUD and the regional planners working under their guidance. That's all. What could go wrong?
Once HUD gets its hooks into a municipality, no policy area is safe. Zoning, transportation, education, all of it risks slipping into the control of the federal government and the new, unelected regional bodies the feds will empower. Over time, AFFH could spell the end of the local democracy that Alexis de Tocqueville rightly saw as the foundation of America’s liberty and distinctiveness.
At this point, municipalities across the country need to seriously consider refraining from applying for Community Development Block Grants and other grant programs sponsored by HUD. Take one dollar of HUD money and you will be forced to submit to its demands, which can reach far beyond housing.
Free money with a high price
Communities such as North East Borough are always short of funds and applying for grants from the federal government seems like an easy way to get a few more dollars for local projects. This year, those dollars come with enormous strings attached. We can do better by doing without.