We should prioritize affordable housing in 2020
America is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, and yet none of the presidential candidates have it at the top of their political agenda in 2020. Though former Vice President Joe Biden has remained steady as the number one Democratic candidate, he has yet to release broad plans or spoken extensively about housing. Other presidential candidates have ideas, but none have made it a top priority.
In our cities and across the nation, the housing needs of poor people — especially poor people of color — are going unaddressed. It's a local and national issue, but too many policymakers are complacent with lower-income Americans being pushed out of their homes (increasing homelessness) and priced out of many cities due to rising housing costs.
The recent work of Sociologist Matthew Desmond revealed increasing eviction rates in cities across the nation, confirming that "we're in the middle of a housing crisis, and that means more and more people are giving more and more of their income to rent and utilities." Desmond notes that incomes have remained flat for many Americans over the last two decades, but median asking rents have increased by 70 percent, adjusting for inflation. Nearly 32 percent of all US households are paying more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing (i.e., cost-burdened), and 1 in 6 households are spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing.
A 2019 Harvard Housing Report notes that the shortage of affordable housing remains acute, especially for lowest-income households. The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that a renter working 40 hours a week and earning minimum wage can't afford a two-bedroom apartment (i.e., not be cost-burdened) anywhere in the nation. Not only are cost-burdened renters still near record highs, but homeownership also remains financially out of reach for many Americans. Nationally gentrification was 20 percent for the period following the 2000 Census, more than double the rate of the 1990s. Rates increased in 39 of the 50 cities reviewed.
Similarly, after years of declines, homelessness increased slightly in 2018, reflecting housing insecurity. In a recent Census Bureau report, the agency detailed concerns about homelessness risks among older adults, racial minorities, uninsured people, and those most vulnerable to an economic recession. The 2018 Census data showed the rate of elderly homelessness to be up to 9.7 percent.
The lack of affordable housing is linked to poverty, homelessness, educational, and health disparities and is compounded by decades of public policy designed to both segregate and displace marginalized communities. Black, Native American, and Hispanic households are more likely than white households to be adversely impacted by the lack of affordable housing. Racial disparities in homelessness, renting, homeownership, and home appreciation are constant and on the rise. Effectively addressing housing is imperative to reducing inequities.
To be sure, affordable housing is getting some local and national attention. Democratic candidates for president discussed the nation’s affordable housing crisis during their recent debate, and many of the candidates have plans to address affordable housing.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) plan includes $445 billion in additional investments in various federal housing funds, intending to build 3.2 million new housing units. Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) plan would invest $2.5 trillion to build nearly 10 million permanently affordable housing units, rehabilitate public housing, build 2 million mixed-income units, and expand the National Housing Trust Fund to help construct, rehabilitate, and preserve 7.4 million housing units. Biden's goal of ensuring 100 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals have housing is a great start, but more widespread policies are needed.
At the local level, there are millions of dollars going into public policies to address housing, for example, in 2016 LA recently designated 1.2 billion to shelter 27,000 homeless in new construction and Washington, D.C. has a fund to preserve affordable rental housing in the district and made bold commitments to end long-term homelessness in the district. But many communities cry “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) because of negative perceptions associated with affordable housing, leaving people that need help overlooked, including the working poor who cannot afford housing but don’t qualify for assistance.
Bottom-up action is required — creating and funding solutions rooted in the knowledge and experience of communities that are most impacted, not just experts or policymakers that have never experienced housing insecurity. We also need a better representation of poor people and persons of color in leadership in all levels of government.
At the top, perhaps the most significant leap the federal government can take to overcome our housing crisis is a universal housing voucher. In his book "Evicted," Matthew Desmond proposes that the federal government expand the current voucher program to all families below a certain income threshold so that they pay no more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
Desmond estimates this would cost $60 billion — a fraction of the hundreds of billions spent subsidizing wealthier people via programs like the mortgage-interest tax deduction.
Whether it's universal housing vouchers or other national, state, or local solutions, we need bold leadership that will address our housing crisis with concrete actions to reduce racial and economic inequities. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination should prioritize housing. It's time for this nation to give affordable housing the attention it deserves.
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