Friday, October 28, 2005

Fee Democracy

Non profit affordable housing organizations may be able to get a few dollars for much needed affordable housing from congress if they can stand the codiciles of cronyism squeezing the participatory lifeblood out of their communities.

The funding would be a boon to the nonprofit housing sector – worth up to an estimated $1 billion within two years – but it comes with strings attached: nonprofit organizations would not be able to tap into the fund if they have recently engaged in activities that encourage people to vote.

In America you can have as much democracy as your sub wage income allows.

A product of negotiations between a faction of conservative legislators and the House Financial Services Committee leadership, the clause is supposedly intended to prevent grantees from misusing federal funds, but housing advocates have denounced the so-called "gag rule" as dangerously broad.


Under the weight of a nationwide affordable housing crisis, nonprofit groups say the proposed rules paradoxically open doors to equitable housing by restricting access to democracy.

"To build affordable housing and have to sacrifice nonprofit free speech and advocacy rights," said Cohen, "is a bargain that, really, nobody should accept."

The legislation essentially bars nonprofits receiving the government money from spending their own private funds, raised from non-federal sources, on any election-related activity. For instance, grantees could not help people register to vote or host a polling site at a housing facility.

The legislation also restricts grantees from associating with groups engaged in such activities -- a caveat critics fear could break up mutually supportive nonprofit networks through guilt by association. According to a legislative analysis by the government watchdog group OMB Watch, "affiliation" could be defined as funding support that constitutes over 20 percent of a group’s yearly budget, overlapping board members, or even a shared computer server.

The proposed restrictions apply to nonprofits for the duration of the grant and are retroactive for a year prior to the funding request. But they would not impact for-profit companies, which already enjoy relatively few limitations on political activities under existing federal statutes. In contrast to their profit-driven counterparts, charitable groups and other nonprofits, are heavily restricted in using their resources to influence government policy, though they can advocate around specific issues.

A broad coalition of nonprofits has argued that the housing fund rules impinge on groups’ free expression and association.

Watch this flimsy reason take shape

An unsigned memorandum recently circulated among House members contended that the bill "would require the government sponsored enterprises to pump billions into left-wing organizations."

Michael Kane, director of the subsidized-housing advocacy group National Association of HUD Tenants, views the restrictions as part of a conservative agenda to disenfranchise underserved communities.

"They’re trying to criminalize democracy," he said, "while allowing unrestrained, government-subsidized… activities by for-profit companies for their own private gain."
More than Bricks and Mortar

Advocates of affordable housing say the connection between political participation and housing work is fundamental to community development.

As community-based institutions, nonprofit housing organizations often serve as a bridge between the advocacy of civil rights groups and low-income and minority constituencies. Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau, said that housing groups lay the groundwork for political organizing, by helping "to build the involvement of people… so they can protect their communities using the political process."

If I were a despot, I would want everybody to be hungry enough to work for what you will give them and ignorant enough to stay that hungry.

Minnesota state law actually mandates that nonprofits receiving state support "shall provide voter registration services for employees and the public."

Chip Halbach, executive director of the advocacy coalition Minnesota Housing Partnership, noted that "state grant dollars go into pretty much every affordable housing unit that gets developed in this state," which would automatically exclude Minnesota nonprofits from the national fund.

For many nonprofit groups involved with affordable-housing work, their voting-related activities never assumed a partisan taint before the ensuing legislative battle.

In the affordable-housing communities managed by the faith-based charity Volunteers of America, voter registration is provided to residents alongside counseling programs and computer training, as part of an array of services.

The very idea that a poor person might cast a ballot somewhere is enough to make George Will and his shadowy owners break out in a cold sweat.

A national housing fund could be critical in the group’s efforts to rebuild damaged units in the Gulf Coast region, many of which house disabled and elderly adults. "We would hate to be precluded," said President Charles Gould, "if there’s something we’re doing on a daily basis to help people who need help in exercising their rights."

For the Child Welfare League of America, an association of social service providers that also helps develop supportive housing, voter education is as political as a high school civics class. Ruth White, director of the League’s housing program, said the restrictions would undermine programs that teach independent living skills to teenagers transitioning out of foster care. Since the goal is to instill a sense of community responsibility, she said, "we can’t, in good conscience, not tell these young people… what it means to be of voting age."

Does anybody know when Iraq plans to return our democracy?

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