Cushing N. Dolbeare Dies at 78; Lifelong Fair Housing Crusader
By Matt Schudel
Cushing N. Dolbeare, 78, who spent more than half a century as an advocate for low-income Americans priced out of the nation's housing market, died March 17 of cancer at her home in Mitchellville.
After the Nixon administration's temporary suspension of all programs for low-income housing in 1973, Ms. Dolbeare formed a national organization to spotlight that need. She assembled a coalition of labor, civil rights, religious and social groups to create the National Low Income Housing Coalition in 1974.
She remained a tireless, fair-minded voice throughout the country and on Capitol Hill for millions of Americans who had difficulty finding affordable places to live. Known for her ability to unite seemingly disparate groups, she found common ground between the financial interests of the real estate industry and the moral interests of advocates for the poor. She freely crossed party lines, forming unlikely alliances of conservatives and liberals.
Andrew Cuomo, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton, once called Ms. Dolbeare "the Rosa Parks of housing."
Carla Hills, HUD secretary in the administration of Gerald R. Ford, praised Ms. Dolbeare yesterday for "the absolute fairness of her advocacy. I think she was indispensable to the cause. She made a genuine difference."
After forming a housing coalition in the garage of her home on Capitol Hill, Ms. Dolbeare was its president from 1977 to 1984 and 1993 to 1994. She founded the Low Income Housing Information Service and was executive director of the National Rural Housing Coalition from 1974 to 1977. She served on the president's Commission on Housing in 1981 and 1982 and chaired a HUD and Environmental Protection Agency joint task force on the hazards of lead paint from 1993 to 1995.
"Cushing was the godmother of the affordable housing advocacy movement," Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) said in a statement. He added that her "commitment, careful analysis and attention to the facts . . . made her respected by all."
She remained chairman emeritus of the housing coalition until her death. She delivered a speech to the National Council of State Housing Agencies last week, in which she quoted the 1933 inaugural address of Franklin D. Roosevelt, in which he described a nation in which one-third of the population was "ill-fed, ill-housed and ill-clothed." Ms. Dolbeare said that a third of all Americans, as many as 95 million people, still face deficiencies in housing.
"Cushing was both the conscience and the brains of the affordable housing movement," said Sheila Crowley, the current president of the housing coalition.
Among her other achievements, Ms. Dolbeare devised an annual analysis called "Out of Reach," using a formula called the "housing wage" that dramatically spotlighted the gap between income and housing costs. The housing wage calculates what someone would need to earn to afford rent on a two-bedroom house. According to the coalition's most recent figures, housing in the District of Columbia is more costly than that in any state in the nation. Based on the housing wage formula, a person earning minimum wage would have to work 125 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom house.
"Throughout my career," Ms. Dolbeare told a House subcommittee in 1995, outlining the source of her advocacy, "I have viewed housing as the basis of family, neighborhood and community life."
Still, Ms. Dolbeare was never satisfied that her work was done. In a 2002 interview with the National Housing Institute, she said, "The housing problem is much worse now than it was when I got into housing."
Cushing Niles Dolbeare was born in Hartford, Conn., and moved across the United States as a child with her parents, who were among the country's first management consultants. By the time she graduated from Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College in 1949, she had attended the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945 and worked in Germany on postwar reconstruction efforts.
One of her first jobs was as a speechwriter for Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, who was invited to talk before a national housing convention.
"I didn't know much about housing," Ms. Dolbeare said in 2002, "but I made it sound as if he did."
In 1952, she was named assistant director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association of Baltimore. From 1956 to 1971, she was managing director of the Housing Association of Delaware Valley in Philadelphia. After consulting for several years on housing and migrant labor issues, Ms. Dolbeare formed the National Low Income Housing Coalition in 1974.
Among her many honors were the 2002 Heinz Award for the Human Condition from the Heinz Family Foundation. She donated the $250,000 prize to the housing coalition for an endowment fund.
She lived in Washington from 1977 to 2002, when she moved to Mitchellville.
Survivors include her husband of 49 years, Louis P. Dolbeare of Mitchellville; two children, Niles Dolbeare of San Francisco and Mary Dolbeare O'Kane of Seattle; a sister; and four grandchildren.