The history of housing in this country could well be capsuled as a story of unintended consequences. Twenty-five years ago, we were beginning to deal with the effects of earlier practices: The Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) affirmative advocacy of neighborhoods segregated by race and income and the impact on inner cities of the dramatic expansion of the suburbs, encouraged by FHA and highway construction, which left our society more segregated than ever between rich and poor, white and Black and other minorities. Federal and local policies had forced unwilling big-city housing authorities to either construct high-rise, monster projects or do nothing at all to relieve the low-income housing shortage and provide for families displaced by slum clearance.
In 1973, President Nixon had addressed the problem of horizontal inequity (which meant housing assistance programs could serve some, but only a few, of those eligible and needing them) by shutting down all low-income housing efforts. The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, which effectively ended the Nixon housing moratorium, was viewed with widespread skepticism even before it was implemented. It took a year for HUD to figure out how to implement its provisions, which substantially revised the nation’s subsidized housing and urban renewal (now community development) programs. Section 8, the ’74 act’s signature housing program, resulted from a series of compromises between an administration regarded as hostile to all forms of housing assistance and a Democratic Congress that had, with great difficulty, reached agreement between House and Senate on a form acceptable to the administration.
The goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family, enunciated in the Housing Act of 1949, appeared to be as far from accomplishment as another major provision of that act: the construction of 100,000 public housing units each year for 10 years.
A good start had been made, prior to the moratorium, on the 600,000 low- and moderate-income units annually authorized in the Housing Act of 1968, although these were predominantly shallow-subsidy units, not the deep subsidy given to public housing. Moreover, it had taken from the 1930s to 1970 to get the first million households into subsidized low-income housing units.
While an array of housing programs had been enacted from the 1937 act that authorized public housing through 1968, they had one thing in common: low-income housing almost always was something done to a community or neighborhood, rather than with it. A few cities had a meaningful level of citizen participation in housing and community development decision-making, but this was generally limited to opportunities to protest at public hearings, often when it was too late. While those of us who were active advocates of citizen participation at the time found the 1974 act wanting, hindsight shows it marked a turning point.
For years now, neighborhood-based citizen efforts have tried to win housing and community funds—particularly those provided under block grant programs—to help meet housing needs in lower-income neighborhoods. Indeed, a lot of the housing has been provided by community housing development organizations (CHDOs) and community development corporations (CDCs) (sometimes one and the same)—institutions that didn’t exist 30 years ago. In the early 1970s, no organized advocacy coalition existed, at least none based on public interest rather than the health of the housing industry. An ad hoc coalition of public interest and advocacy groups concerned with low-income housing issues formed when the 1974 act was under consideration, but it had neither staff nor budget. It continued to function informally and later, in 1978, became the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Once the regulations governing the Section 8 program were issued and digested, low-income housing reached its peak. In 1976, HUD and Farmers Home Administration subsidized housing programs provided a total of 649,000 incremental units. While this figure includes 206,000 tenant-based units (such as vouchers), neither the total units nor the level of project-based units has been equaled since. Indeed, it has not even been approached since FY1981, the year project-based HUD low-income housing programs were effectively terminated (although units put in the pipeline continued to be produced over some years). The Ford administration’s final budget proposal requested funds for 400,000 additional HUD-subsidized low-income units. Congress cut the request, continuing a pattern that lasted through the Carter administration. Strange as it may seem, the Carter administration’s subsidized housing levels seemed to us advocates at the time to be a moratorium by attrition.
In fact, the number of households living in federally subsidized low- and moderate-income housing rose from 1 million in 1970 to 3 million by 1980. But weak targeting requirements, rising costs, and loss of affordable unsubsidized units—a preservation issue advocates have not focused on—meant that, even with this increase, the affordability gap for very low-income families grew far more rapidly during the 1970s than it has since. Even with the drastic cuts in additional housing during the Reagan administration, the number of federally subsidized households had risen to 4.4 million by 1990, due to the building out of the Carter project-based pipeline and additional tenant-based assistance.
Today’s Low-income Housing Landscape
So where, in contrast to 1975, are we now? On the positive side, community-based nonprofits are now a significant force in providing affordable housing and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program appears to have gotten the incentives right for producing a substantial volume of high-quality mixed-income housing. HOME and CDBG have provided a framework for collaborations and partnerships. Homeless programs pioneered linkages between housing and supportive services. We know how to build and rehabilitate housing, how to link it with opportunities for upward mobility, and the importance of healthy neighborhoods and access to education, employment, and services.
But in exchange for the abandonment of meaningful levels of housing assistance—whether project- or tenant-based—we are paying a high price in homelessness and severe cost burdens. Currently, in no county in the United States is the federal minimum wage as high as the “housing wage”—the amount a family needs to earn to pay the fair market rent for a modest but adequate unit.
While Congress has responded to this problem by providing some additional vouchers in the last two fiscal years, they are far from sufficient to offset the loss of affordable units. From FY1997 through FY1980, an average of 445,000 incremental low-income units were provided through HUD and Farmers Home Administration subsidized housing programs. Had we continued at this rate for the following 20 years, we would now have almost 9 million households living in federally subsidized units—enough, if so targeted, to cut the number of households with “worst case” housing needs by 80 percent.
But the lack of units is only part of the picture. Federal targeting provisions have also been substantially relaxed. Devolution has become a reality, with state or local governments making most key decisions on housing assistance, with decreasing federal requirements and constraints. Typically, additional units for extremely low-income people can only be attained through vouchers or through subsidies from a variety of sources.
As “worst case” housing needs are both growing in number and becoming concentrated at the very bottom of the income scale, homelessness is also increasing. The Urban Institute recently estimated that about 1 percent of the U.S. population, and closer to 10 percent of the poverty population, experiences homelessness once or more in the course of a year.
Voices Must Be Raised!
All this is happening in a country that in many respects is the best-housed nation in the world. Perhaps this is why, in this election year, housing is not a political issue. Yet ask almost all educators, employment counselors, or healthcare or social service providers whether they can succeed in their own missions if their clients are homeless or do not have stable housing. The answer is that decent housing is a major requirement for their success. But we do not hear their voices raised in housing advocacy. That is left primarily to “housers.”
Major reasons for this, it seems, are that we housers talk more in terms of programs and units than of people, and we deal with programs about which we ourselves disagree and which are regarded by others as unduly complicated and largely unsuccessful.
Still, it is perplexing that there is a constituency for better access to health care, despite major disagreements within the medical community on how best to provide health care services; a constituency for improved education, despite fierce disagreements on how best to provide it; a constituency for food stamps and hunger programs, despite concerns about agribusiness; but only a weak constituency for low-income housing. When probed, those who say adequate housing is vital to their success in helping clients in their own fields generally respond that they don’t understand the complicated programs and issues.
Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, so housing is too important to be left to housers. We need to encourage everyone who recognizes the importance of a decent home and suitable living environment to say so. That doesn’t require understanding the intricacies of housing programs; it does require explaining why decent housing is important to them, to their families, their communities, and, often, to their professional success.
Meanwhile, we housers need to celebrate what we can do and have done, though in the context of how little of the need we have addressed and what we could do if we had adequate resources. Without those resources, it doesn’t really matter what we do; our low-income housing problems will continue to grow.