Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The White House proposed dramatic budget cuts for housing, transit, and food aid. Instead, the omnibus delivers extra spending.
Housing advocates are breathing a heavy sigh of relief Friday after the president signed off on a sweeping $1.3 trillion spending bill. So are transit supporters. And social safety net providers. After a year of budget proposals that promised to shred federal spending on these missions, this government funding bill does nothing of the sort.
President Donald Trump, with his usual insatiable appetite for drama, floated a veto threat Friday morning. He objected to the bill’s lack of mega-funding for a border wall and a failure to protect undocumented immigrants under the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. But in the face of a third government funding lapse this year, he relented, signing it into law Friday afternoon.
Now several categories of spending for infrastructure and the social safety net can count themselves lucky. Some will even see a boost.
- Sanctuary cities are safe, for now: The omnibus doesn’t do anything to defund sanctuary cities—a fact that has Trump seriously ticked off, The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott reports.
- Housing tax credits get a big boost: The nation’s most effective incentive for building affordable housing is the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which took a major (albeit indirect) hit in the tax bill: The cut in the corporate tax rate diminished the housing tax credit’s allure to investors. The omnibus bill addresses that damage by boosting allocation levels by 12.5 percent over the next four years. Plus, the omnibus permanently tweaks the income formula used to determine what counts as an affordable development for tax credit purposes. In essence, this means that families with higher income levels will be eligible for affordable housing—the idea being that their incomes will offset households with much, much lower incomes.
- Food aid stays steady, for now: There were no big changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but that was always a given. The real test for SNAP will come in the farm bill, which may be next on Congress’s to-do list. “Given current caseloads and projected food costs, we believe the omnibus provides sufficient funding for SNAP,” says Elizabeth Wolkomir, senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
- Transit is a clear omnibus winner: The Federal Transit Administration secured a $1 billion budget boost (to $13.5 billion annually). Amtrak maintained its $1.5 billion funding and picked up $650 million for Northeast Corridor fixes—some of which could be used to fund the Gateway project, a spendy NYC-to-New-Jersey rail tunnel that the regional economy desperately needs and that Trump adamantly opposes. Even the D.C. metro found some money in the omnibus. Streetsblog’s Angie Schmidt spells it out: “With some hard-right House Republicans refusing to support the package, Democrats were able to secure some spending priorities in return for their votes.”
- Homeless assistance sees an uptick: Funding levels for HUD’s McKinney–Vento Homelessness Assistance Grants program increased by $130 million over fiscal year 2017 levels—enough to help house 25,000 more people, according to the National Alliance To End Homelessness.
- Housing programs on the chopping block get rescued: Two programs that the White House proposed eliminating entirely are instead getting significant injections. The HOME Investment Partnerships Program budget increased from $950 million to $1.3 billion.* Community Development Block Grants funds grew from $3 billion to $3.3 billion. Both of those programs are designed to help communities find local solutions for housing vulnerable families. “It’s exciting to see that Congress is responding to calls from constituents around the country to address the gap between what people can afford with their wages and what rents really cost,” says Marion McFadden, former deputy assistant secretary at HUD and current vice president of policy at Enterprise Community Partners.
This omnibus is a sign that Republicans are not as ideologically committed to slashing spending as some of their most ardent supporters would like to believe. And core government services—providing reliable transit, securing safe housing for the homeless, giving food to those in need—have greater bipartisan support than the White House might have guessed.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that this figure would climb to $3.3 billion.