Roughly thirty-five years ago, Yelena Bonner was not well known in America. But, by the time she was allowed by mother Russia (then the Soviet Union) to travel to this country hers was nearly a household name. When the sixty year-old human rights activist – wife of exiled Soviet peacenik Andrei D. Sakharov – arrived in New York she was surrounded by members of an adoring media.
“What do the Soviet people want?” a reporter asked her. Without hesitating she answered. “They want what all of humanity wants – a home of their own.”
That statement of Bonner’s in the ‘80’s became former congressman and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Jack Kemp’s signature reprise. The irrepressible politician repeated it everywhere he went. Why? Because he believed it. So much so that he tried to make homeownership a reality for all Americans who wanted it.
Indeed, Kemp was a housing booster; and his legacy lives on.
Kemp worshipped homeownership and he loved and greatly respected homeowners. He saw homeownership as affecting those who took the leap – in both the suburbs and downtown. He was especially smitten with how he saw single mothers struggling to raise her children the right way and how owning one’s home – particularly in inner-city locales – bound the family together and scared the neighborhood’s bad influences away. He was taken by the 1992 riots in Los Angeles where agitators set fire to everything except single-family homes.
Kemp wasn’t always a housing guy. First and foremost Kemp was a jock. After graduating college in 1957 he was drafted by the Detroit Lions professional football franchise as a quarterback. The team cut him before the season began.
Afterwards, he bounced around the National Football League before landing the starting job with San Diego Chargers of the new American Football League (now the American Football Conference). He played in San Diego for a couple of years then became the prolific, longtime signal-caller for the Bills in Buffalo, NY.
His football experience – and a career playing with black teammates – made Kemp a strong proponent of racial equality. Said Kemp, “I wasn’t there with Rosa Parks or Dr. King or John Lewis but I am here now, and I am going to yell from the rooftops about what we need to do.” Remember, this was the ‘80’s when a Republican took this stand. His football colleagues confirmed this influence – offensive great John Mackey simply said “the huddle is colorblind.”
Kemp practiced what he preached, too. While HUD Secretary, he often traveled to Chicago and St. Louis to visit with tenant leaders who were busy making their housing projects more democratic while keeping drugs and gangs away. As an example, he helped organize tenant-management councils across the country to maintain order in countless housing communities.
Kemp was likewise an excellent listener. After hearing from residents he would follow up with officials of the local public housing authority (PHA) and make sure his aides stayed on top of the problem until it was solved. He never lost a bout with PHAs or local officials whenever a tenant was at the center of the dispute.
He cared about market-rate, middle-class housing as much as he did about the multifamily kind, as well. While at HUD, he gathered together experts from around the country to investigate regulations – federal, state and local – affecting affordable housing production. He then published a guide featuring the barriers found by this group along with their many recommendations for reform. Those findings and life-long remedies can be found in what’s known as The Kemp Commission report.
And so it goes that California legislators truly interested in fixing the state’s housing problems would be well-advised to read the report (known officially as the report of the federal Advisory Commission on Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing). Copies of the report can be found online.
After reading the report, lawmakers who are really aimed at boosting production will realize just how weak their purported legislative “fixes” are or have been. They will also discover that taxing new housing with assorted new requirements – to accomplish what they individually couldn’t get their locals to do – just produces more expensive housing. The unaffordable kind.
Kemp would also be inclined to support ridding the state of its most menacing housing constraint – the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). He’d profoundly object to CEQA’s ubiquity – its reach into every housing project being built or proposed. As fond as he was of the nation’s majestic natural resources Kemp would likely join the call for repealing California’s premier environmental law and starting over with something targeted and less intrusive.
Now, more than 10 years after Kemp’s death and 20 years after his commission’s report was released, the condition of the nation’s housing policy is in trouble, to say the least, and is absolutely awful here in California. If he was around, Kemp’s leadership, alone, would have a positive impact on supplying the state and the nation with needed housing. His was a balanced approach to the issue, not doctrinaire – he admitted to being a “bleeding heart” conservative.
Having failed miserably for several decades it’s time that housing in California and abroad tried a new brand of policy making – the Kemp brand.