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Slashing affordable-housing money from the reconciliation bill is a huge mistake | Opinion

·4 min read

If you didn’t struggle — or worry about struggling — to pay your rent or mortgage this past year, consider yourself fortunate. That is not the experience roughly a third of Americans are having right now.

The pandemic’s economic fallout may have brought America’s housing crisis to the forefront — 114 million jobs were lost in 2020, resulting in working-hour losses four times higher than during the devastating financial crisis of 2009 — but the pandemic didn’t cause our nation’s housing crisis.

The truth is that the U.S. has not been building enough housing to meet demand for nearly two decades. It’s a failure of housing policy, not the result of a “black swan” event. According to the National Association of Realtors, the U.S. has been under-building for a while, resulting in a shortfall of 5.5 to 6.8 million housing units. That has left the American dream out of reach for many families — and created a dire situation calling for once-in-a-generation policy response.

Housing unaffordability

Which is why it’s deeply troubling that lawmakers are considering cutting more than $327 billion for affordable housing programs from the Build Back Better reconciliation bill in order to reduce the $3.5 trillion spending package. This is misguided and counterproductive.

For one, housing is the cornerstone on which the success of all other social safety net programs depend (expanded Medicare benefits, universal pre-kindergarten, etc.) Diane Yentel, CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, probably said it best: “Better healthcare or increased educational access will not do much for families sleeping in their cars or under bridges, or for the millions more on the verge of homelessness.”

This not hyperbole. The threat that housing unaffordability poses is real, and not only for those at the lowest rung of the economic ladder. There is a severe shortage of rental housing at every price point now, and that has led to unprecedented, double-digit rent increases across the nation. This summer, the NLIHC published an astonishing report that showed that there is not a single American state, metropolitan area or county where a full-time, minimum-wage worker can afford a modest, two-bedroom rental home. Over 7.5 million renters spend more than half of their incomes on housing, a situation that puts families one paycheck away from disaster.

Furthermore, the affordable housing shortage has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Hence, housing policy has profound racial justice implications. According to the same NLIHC report, “historic and continuing racist housing policies and practices result in people of color disproportionately facing greater challenges accessing decent and affordable homes.” Black and Latino workers earn less than white workers, and Black and Latino households are more likely to spend more than 30% of their incomes on housing.

Expanding access to affordable housing, therefore, must be the basis of any sincere effort to address racial inequity in the U.S.

Make housing priority

Another compelling reason that housing ought to be a priority in the reconciliation bill is that only a small fraction of the $47 billion approved for emergency rental assistance made it to the millions of renters who need it. This was largely due to administrative failures — the programs distributing the relief had to be built from scratch in many states.

By contrast, the housing programs that the reconciliation bill aims to support — like the expansion of the 35-year-old, low-income housing tax credit program and housing vouchers — are well-established, professionally administered, and have a long track record of success. Supporting housing through these channels is the best way to ensure accountability and impact.

Lastly, affordable housing has a bigger, downstream impact on people’s wealth — and the economy — than pretty much any other expenditure. According to the National Council of State Housing Agencies, for every single-family home constructed, 2.9 jobs are created and $129,647 in taxes are generated. Rental apartments, similarly, generate 1.25 jobs and $55,909 in taxes. Again, returning to data from the National Association of Realtors, new home construction this decade would add an estimated 2.8 million American jobs and $50 billion in new, nationwide tax revenue.

Housing advocates like me have been shouting from figurative rooftops for over a decade that the U.S. is heading toward catastrophe if it does not invest in housing infrastructure, and that only a coordinated, federal response would have the necessary impact. It’s encouraging that expansion of housing programs has had bipartisan support, but it simply hasn’t been made a priority. We implore our lawmakers not to waste this unprecedented opportunity to put housing in America first.

Matthew A. Rieger is president and CEO of Housing Trust Group. He leads one of the largest affordable housing developers in the country.

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