Cushing Dolbeare receives the Heinz Award for the Human Condition in recognition of 50 years of tireless commitment to the principle that decent housing is basic to our social fabric, and for her effective advocacy on behalf of poor Americans with housing problems.
Her landmark life's work, which began as a lonely crusade, is now the conventional wisdom in the groves of academe and the halls of Congress. If, today, it seems to go without saying that a decent home is a prerequisite for a functioning family, good health, success in school and a livable community, then that understanding is largely the result of the long, hard and often thankless work of Cushing Dolbeare.
In 1974, the Nixon Administration, planning a major overhaul, abruptly terminated all federal low-income housing programs. Cushing Dolbeare, already enjoying a well-established career as director of a Philadelphia-based housing policy and advocacy organization, realized that timely and accurate information on low-income housing issues and programs was more urgently needed than ever by community organizations and political activists. To that end, she founded the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Operating, literally, without a budget and out of her garage, she almost single-handedly put low-income housing on the national agenda and made the Coalition the pivotal player that it remains to this day.
Aware that passion, to be politically effective, requires sound underpinning, Ms. Dolbeare applied her analytical background and skills to proving that federal housing policies helped the rich and hurt the poor. She demonstrated the disparity between the upper-income owners who benefited from federal tax subsidies and the lower-income and poverty-level renters who had to rely on directly appropriated funds for any assistance. With an irresistible combination of tenacity and accessibility, and always accompanied by constantly updated (and, ultimately, unassailable) statistics, she presented and repeated her analysis in every available public and private forum. Now that it is taken for granted, it is hard to appreciate the breakthrough this analysis represented at the time - and what a challenge it presented to politically influential beneficiaries of the status quo.
In 1989, the Coalition published the first edition of Out of Reach: The Gap Between Housing Costs and Income of Poor People in the United States. Continually in print and updated annually, this remains the definitive document regarding the problems of affordable housing on the national, state and local levels. That same year, Ms. Dolbeare once again played a critical role in reversing a benighted public policy with her support for the passage and funding of a new program for the homeless called "Shelter Plus Care," which recognized that most homeless people suffer from addictions and illnesses, and tied shelter to health care and supportive services.
Through good times when low-income housing has enjoyed support, and bad times when it has been denounced as a government boondoggle, her command of her subject, combined with her quiet, determined, articulate, credible and utterly principled leadership, have earned her the admiration and affection of countless supporters as well as the respect of even her most entrenched opponents.
Affordable housing doesn't always make the headlines, and progress must often be measured in small steps. But it is one of the most important issues facing America in the 21st century, and Cushing Dolbeare's accomplishments, and her commitment to safe, decent and affordable housing for all people, speak to the very heart of the human condition.
Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.
Cushing Dolbeare passed away on March 17, 2005.
Speech3/12/2002 - Acceptance Speech
I am honored to receive this generous and welcome recognition of my housing efforts. Alas, the honor is for the effort, not the results.
Today, with rising homelessness and an ever-tighter shortage of low-rent housing, we are further from the goal of decent, affordable housing for all than at any time since the great depression.
After more than sixty years of federal low income housing programs, there are still three poor families needing housing assistance and unable to get it, because it isn't there, for each poor family now living in subsidized housing.
Meanwhile, through priorities that are primarily the unintended consequence of an income tax law passed during the civil war and reinstated almost a century ago, the federal government through the tax system provides three dollars in benefits to upper income home owners for every dollar it spends on improving housing for low income families.
We could achieve the national goal of decent, affordable housing for all, if only we were willing to spend as much on housing assistance for low and middle income people as the $107 billion we will spend this year on housing for the affluent.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition has grown and become a powerful voice in the national policy arena not so much because of my efforts as because thousands of people have dedicated their energies and resources to addressing our low income housing needs. Many, as I do, primarily through their advocacy. Many more through their efforts as community organizers, builders, housing managers, financiers, or service providers - and through linking these efforts to advocacy. They deserve a large share of the credit for whatever accomplishments my work has generated.
The issue of low income housing is primarily one of political will. Moreover, I do not (as many do) believe it is a matter of creating a constituency. Rather, we need to reach and serve the constituency that is already there: people who care about what happens to others less fortunate than they are and who believe that economic opportunity and a decent home are basic human rights. And we need not be reluctant or ashamed to appeal to people's better instincts, not primarily to their self-interest.
In 1913, speaking to students at my alma mater, Swarthmore College, Woodrow Wilson said: "You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand." Those words have been a mantra for my life. I want to thank my family for their support as I have sought to follow them: my parents, who instilled these values before I ever heard those words, and my husband and children, who have both empowered me and lived them in their own ways.
I am proud to receive this award, for the recognition and the grant that will provide the National Low Income Housing Coalition with the seed money for an endowment campaign. But, as well, because it carries the name of Senator Heinz, whom I knew as a persistent, effective, and persuasive supporter of low income housing, particularly for the elderly. He clearly did enrich the world in many ways - and still does through these awards.
Thank you very much.