The purpose of government is to perform critical functions that the private sector is not performing. When minimum wage workers – much less the millions of elderly, disabled, and families without jobs – can’t afford a private sector apartment in most urban areas, the private sector is clearly not fulfilling this function. Nonprofits are doing their best, but have limited resources. Federal resources are required.
Unfortunately, housing prospects for very low-income families, seniors, and the disabled are reaching crisis levels. Normally, the number of people in homeless centers declines with warmer summer weather. This summer, however, homeless shelters are full.
Local housing authorities and nonprofits struggle to find funds to build affordable housing units, but can’t keep up with growing demand. And expiring Section 8 contracts over the next five years raise the prospect that we will actually see a net loss of affordable housing units as many landlords convert apartments to market rents.
In the face of these developments, Congress continues to retreat from a commitment to meet affordable housing needs. Of course, this retreat is not a new phenomenon. Housing production programs of the 1960s and 1970s (with FHA guarantees and project-based rental assistance) gave way to a 1980’s budget philosophy of minimalism. Even as the 1986 Tax Act created the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, it reduced tax-exempt bond financing and depreciation benefits for construction of affordable multi-family units.
This retreat has accelerated in recent years. In early 1995 without a single hearing, Congress cut HUD’s budget by 25 percent. Last year, Congress passed welfare legislation, making deep cuts in welfare and food stamp payments, which further exacerbates housing affordability.
The track record of this Congress is no better. Earlier this year the house passed Housing “reform” legislation, the main “reform” of which was to cut in half the number of very poor families receiving housing assistance. Just recently, the House passed a spending bill that continues to underfund housing programs and eliminates preservation funding – the only program we have to prevent the loss of affordable housing units under expiring Section 8 contracts. When I tried to offer an amendment to restore funds for the homeless and community development programs (within budget limits), I was defeated on a party line vote.
My amendment demonstrates a simple fact: a balanced budget is no excuse for underfunding housing programs. Earlier this year I offered my own balanced budget plan – a plan that restores funding for homeless programs to pre-recision levels, gives public housing authorities full funding for operating subsidies, and provides funds for 50,000 new vouchers a year.
There are other ways we can reestablish our commitment to affordable housing. Tax policy is one example. The budget bill that passed the House provides $8 billion in tax breaks for existing homeowners – but not a penny for construction of affordable housing. We should also explore new ways to leverage existing resources to maximize their effectiveness. And we need to design and fund a program to preserve housing that would otherwise be lost under Section 8 expiring contracts.
We are now reaping the harvest of decades of neglect in meeting our affordable housing needs. Let’s change course; let’s reassert our commitment to this most basic of human needs.