Housing is critical infrastructure — federal spending must prioritize it
Infrastructure — a long-neglected though crucial and popular policy priority — is having its moment.
President Biden put his $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan at the top of his agenda, and in the coming days Congress will introduce infrastructure bills of its own.
Yet we are already seeing attempts to gut the investment we need in favor of “traditional” infrastructure priorities, putting the $213 billion the president proposed for housing on the chopping block.
Why? Because housing somehow isn’t considered infrastructure.
By any definition of infrastructure, housing meets it. Think of infrastructure as the wheel that keeps America moving, something we can’t do unless each spoke is intact. That means repairing and modernizing our roads, bridges, public transit, rail, digital networks, pipes and electrical grid. This is the infrastructure that connects our communities. It is the arteries of our economy; the key to productivity.
What about the center of the wheel, its hub, its most important part? Housing is the hub for all infrastructure. It’s America’s beating heart — where life happens and futures begin. We can have the best transportation system in the world to take us wherever we want to go. Without good affordable homes, what are we coming home to?
COVID-19 reminded us that housing is crucial. As governments demanded people shelter in place, the economy plummeted. Officials passed eviction moratoria and rent relief to ensure we could stay home. Yet as these protections lift, they will reveal a crisis that has been there all along: the greatest shortage of affordable homes the United States has had in over100 years.
Like other infrastructure investments, housing investment boosts the economy — especially jobs. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, which helps finance nearly all affordable homes created in the U.S. and has always enjoyed bipartisan support, creates nearly 100,000 jobs every year. And there are shovel-ready projects in every zip code that could immediately bring construction jobs to people while creating the homes Americans need.
We saw this after the 2008 economic crash. When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in 2009, funds for housing, like the HOME and Native American Housing Block Grant programs, injected money and jobs into the economy faster than any other investment in infrastructure.
Investing in housing infrastructure is also essential in the fight against climate change. Housing is responsible for 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, climate disasters across the U.S. caused nearly $100 billion in damage. Funding to retrofit homes before the next disaster will save lives and billions of taxpayer dollars spent on recovery.
On the eve of the largest government investment in the economy since the 1960s, we should make these dollars go further by bringing private funding into the market. Housing does that like no other. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit alone has enabled states and cities to leverage over $100 billion of private capital to create more than 3 million affordable homes. And not just from traditional banks, but from foundations and tech giants like Netflix and Amazon who are increasingly getting involved. Smart federal investment should incentivize this while making sure communities also benefit.
The cost of not investing in housing — of ignoring it as the essential infrastructure it is — will be greater than any legislative price tag: it includes the lost business revenue from consumer purchasing power that evaporates after paying rent; the skyrocketing amount we’ll spend annually on disaster recovery; and increased health care costs to care for people who live in substandard, deteriorating homes.
Taking housing off the table won’t just cost jobs. It will tear the infrastructure holding our society together. Segregation in this country is perpetuated by housing policies rooted in systemic racism. Our failure to address the affordable housing needs across our country is primarily responsible for America’s massive racial wealth gap. Investing in housing can change this and give families the infrastructure they need for a better life.
Infrastructure is a bipartisan issue. Our country cannot move forward without it. If we agree that investment in infrastructure is essential, then housing — the hub of the wheel that keeps our country moving forward — cannot be left to rust.
Priscilla Almodovar is president and chief executive officer of Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing nonprofit. Tom Wright is president and chief executive officer of the Regional Planning Association, the nation’s oldest independent metropolitan research, planning and advocacy organization.