The Affordable Housing Crisis
The New York Times
December 4, 2012
The precious few federal programs that provide rental assistance to the nation's poorest and most vulnerable families are already underfinanced. These programs provide decent housing for about only a quarter of the low-income families who qualify for them. And with nearly nine million households teetering on the verge of homelessness, the country clearly needs more support for affordable housing, not less.
The main federal programs are traditional public housing, for which the government provides operating expenses, plus two different programs under Section 8 of the housing law, in which rents are subsidized in privately owned properties. Federal housing programs provide a lifeline for about five million low-income households that would otherwise be unable to afford livable housing at all.
More than half of these households are headed by elderly or disabled people and more than a third are families that include children. These families are overwhelmingly "extremely low income," which means they earn less than a third of the median income in the areas where they live.
Congress has not treated these housing programs kindly in recent years. Between 2010 and 2012, financing fell by about $2.5 billion, or nearly 6 percent, although some of this was mitigated by one-time measures, like spending from reserves. President Obama's budget for the 2013 fiscal year is not much of an improvement; given inflation, Congress would have to increase appropriations just to keep treading water, when, in fact, what the poor in this country need is a significant jump.
The administration obviously needs to do better. The number of families eligible for this program has grown significantly since the start of the recession. Last year, for example, 8.5 million very-low-income families without housing assistance paid more than half their incomes for housing -- an increase of 43 percent from 2007.
These families skimp on food and medical care to make the rent and tend to move often, making it difficult for their children to be successful at school. They are also more prone to homelessness, which is traumatic for them and extremely costly for the municipalities that run shelters.
Yet even as the need for affordable housing has grown, such units have disappeared. Over the last two decades, for example, private landlords have removed more than 200,000 apartments from subsidy programs so that they could raise rents. And, faced with weak federal support and no money for repairs, the local housing authorities that manage federally supported developments have boarded up or torn down more than 150,000 units.
According to an analysis by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it would take about $26 billion to repair the public housing developments that shelter more than two million of the nation's most vulnerable people. The department is currently engaged in a pilot project under which a small subset of public housing authorities will be allowed to leverage private capital to make the needed repairs on their properties.
Meanwhile, Congress could help reduce costs for affordable housing units by passing the Affordable Housing and Self Sufficiency Improvement Act, a sound proposal in which core provisions have bipartisan support. The act would save money by streamlining a whole range of rules that are now redundant or excessively complicated -- allowing agencies to more efficiently screen applicants, cutting the frequency with which housing authorities are required to inspect units, and simplifying the setting of rental rates.
But Congress would still have to find major new sources of revenue to sustain the current programs and meet increasingly pressing housing needs. It took an important first step in 2008, when it created The National Housing Trust Fund. Modeled on successful state programs, the fund would provide subsidies and incentives to preserve, rehabilitate and build housing for low-income families in stable middle-class communities.
It would also stimulate construction and create jobs. The money to underwrite the fund was supposed to come from the federally backed mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which imploded at the start of the recession. Now that those companies have turned the corner, the time may have come to divert some of their profits to affordable housing.
Other ideas are circulating that go beyond simply beefing up programs with more appropriations. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, for instance, has suggested revising the tax code -- which now provides some $100 billion in tax breaks to homeowners -- to give low-income renters a benefit as well. The benefits would take the form of a credit to be distributed by the states according to income and other criteria.
The center estimates that eligible families would end up paying about only 30 percent of incomes on housing, and that even a modest renters' credit capped at $5 billion would lift 250,000 renters out of poverty, help 1.2 million of the lowest income renters and cut the number of poor households that spend more than half their incomes on rent by 700,000. That proposal deserves a serious reading.
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