Opinion

America Has a Historic Chance to Address the Housing Crisis. We Cannot Miss It.

It will take years before we understand the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but one of its critical lessons is already clear: America is facing a dire housing crisis. A recent study from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that more than 11 million families were behind on their rent or mortgage payments, with homeowners alone owing almost $90 billion in back payments.

An emergency this severe requires bold long-term solutions. With the ongoing debate over a comprehensive package poised to finally provide the robust investment into infrastructure America deserves, elected officials in Washington have a historic opportunity to get to the root of the housing crisis and materially better the lives of millions of Americans from coast to coast. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

Addressing this crisis successfully starts with a clear understanding that housing is infrastructure. This is not a controversial concept. Housing is a fundamental part of America’s built environment. Building and preserving it requires brick and mortar investment.

Housing is also part of our nation’s social fabric — and sadly, illustrative of our long-standing inequities: Black and Latino households are twice as likely as white households to be behind on rent. Closing the systemic disparities that are quite literally built into our system begins with improving access to affordable and quality housing.

In short, what we need is a national housing safety net. In my home state of New York, 2.7 million families live in poverty and nearly 1 million low-income households spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent each month. Those vulnerable households, however, are not reached by federal programs, nor are most others across the country: An astounding three-in-four eligible households do not currently receive any federal rental assistance through the Section 8 program, in which the federal government supports up to 70 percent of a household’s rent.

Then-candidate Joe Biden promised to fix this broken system on the campaign trail when he pledged to fully fund Section 8. To do so would immediately reduce the nation’s poverty rate by 25 percent – a truly historic achievement with lasting and widespread impact. Congress should pressure the White House to make good on the now-president’s transformative promise and lift millions of our most vulnerable families out of poverty.

At the same time, we should pursue policies that prevent people from falling into housing insecurity in the first place by addressing the country’s nearly 7-million-unit shortage of affordable housing. Several proposals currently under consideration in D.C. would go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.

To start, Congress should pass the Affordable Housing Tax Credit Improvement Act, which would lower the amount of credits needed for a select project to receive a tax break. This would result in a significant increase in private investment in federally assisted affordable housing development, laying the groundwork for a more affordable future. And by expanding the National Housing Trust Fund to $40 billion annually, those new homes would reach the lowest-income households with the most urgent need.

In addition, Congress should prioritize funding for public housing in the final infrastructure package. More than 400,000 individuals live in New York City Housing Authority residences. Those properties alone face a $40 billion capital deficit that causes a degradation of the housing stock, leading to dangerous substandard living conditions. To meet this need in New York and across the country, Congress should include at least $80 billion in the final infrastructure package to help rehabilitate, retrofit, and repair our public housing stock.

These changes are not Band-Aids. Taken together, they would be transformative in the long term by addressing a longstanding crisis, helping an industry hit hard by the pandemic get back on its feet, and boosting the economy overall.

Congress has already shown that it cares deeply about housing, allocating billions in rental assistance since the pandemic began last spring, routinely extending the federal eviction moratorium and even making a change to the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit that will significantly boost the supply of affordable housing.

But to take those commitments to the next – and undoubtedly necessary – level, Congress and the White House need to do more. If they are bold enough to follow the steps outlined here, they can end the country’s housing emergency. Americans now and in the future will thank them.

 

Rachel Fee is the executive director of the New York Housing Conference.

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