Seizing a once in a lifetime opportunity to end homelessness in the US
The choices and the opportunities facing the nation in the economic package now being considered by Congress are unprecedented. Many of them — health, education, family leave, and others — are important. But none will have its intended impact unless the proposals to ensure safe, stable and affordable homes are enacted. A home is the foundation upon which all the other priorities rest.
Science, data and common sense make the importance of stable homes clear, yet federal funding to make it possible has been neglected for decades. The result? Growing homelessness that overwhelms even the shelter system, resulting in over 200,000 people living on sidewalks or in cars every night. Millions more households are forced to spend so much of their income on rent that they have little left for food, clothing or health care.
Nationally, there is a shortage of 7 million homes affordable and available to renters with the lowest incomes. There is no state or congressional district with enough affordable homes to meet the demand. To keep a roof over their heads, most of the lowest income people spend at least half of their income on rent, leaving few resources to put food on the table, cover medical costs, or meet other basic needs.
People of color are most harmed by the country’s inadequate housing system. Decades of structural racism and ongoing discrimination create racial disparities in housing, contributing to inequities in wealth, education, health and more. Black people are 13 percent of the general population but are 40 percent of people experiencing homelessness and more than 50 percent of homeless families with children. Native Americans are dramatically overrepresented among those without homes. People of color are disproportionately low-income renters, and more likely than white people to struggle to afford rent.
There are solutions to help lower income families address this problem. But they are woefully underfunded. Three in four households that need the help are turned away as a result.
This shortage of affordable housing, and resulting homelessness, has been growing since the early 1980s. We have both worked for over 25 years, in various capacities, to address these problems. Now, for the first time in our careers, Congress could enact historic legislation with funding at the scale necessary to end homelessness.
The Build Back Better Act invests in housing solutions for those with the greatest needs. $90 billion will expand rental assistance and serve an additional one million households, many of them homeless. $80 billion will repair, preserve, and expand public housing for nearly 2.5 million residents. $37 billion will be available for the national Housing Trust Fund to build and preserve 330,000 homes for people with the lowest incomes. If these housing funds are appropriated and used strategically, they could end homelessness in our nation and achieve other significant goals as well.
These investments are long-overdue and much needed. And the cost of not providing them is high, through continued racial inequities, diminished health, poor education outcomes, and much more. Yet these funds are at risk, as is the determination to use them strategically to help the highest need and most vulnerable households.
To secure enough support to enact the legislation, congressional leaders are considering major cuts.
Any cuts to the Build Back Better Act must not come at the expense of housing our country’s lowest income people, and housing investments must be deeply targeted towards those with the greatest needs. Affordable homes are essential to thriving individuals, families, communities, and the nation. They are essential to ending widespread homelessness.
This is a unique moment, and one unlikely to be seen again in our careers or even lifetimes. We have worked for decades, with our colleagues, partners and impacted people throughout the country, to make clear the essential role that housing plays in all of our lives and in the success of our communities and our nation, and to urge Congress to fund solutions at the scale needed. Now, at long last, resources to fix a housing system that fails so many could be enacted, and people sleeping on sidewalks, in homeless shelters, or in unsafe or unaffordable homes, could be stably housed.
Congress must not squander this opportunity. It must fund and target housing investments to end homelessness and put the nation on a path to housing stability and equity for all.
Diane Yentel is president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) and Nan Roman is president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH).