National housing policy needs a complete renovation

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America’s national housing policy urgently needs a foundation-to-roof renovation. As COVID-19 now threatens to induce a surge of evictions and greater homelessness, and perhaps again later with a second wave of disease, this policy utterly lacks the capacity to scale to the challenges. It is seemingly wired in a way that invites failure or inadequate outcomes. 

We need sweeping change to national housing policy, encompassing legislative actions, administrative, management and regulatory reforms — and, of pivotal importance, a new, bipartisan political will to make these changes.

If those holding office or seeking office fail to grasp the essential significance of national housing policy to the goals of social equity and economic opportunity for all — brought into bold relief recently by George Floyd’s death — vital new public housing investments and reforms will never materialize.

There is a reason for concern. If you had been closely following the 2020 presidential primary campaign, you probably would have never known that there are just 7.2 million affordable and available rental homes for the nation’s 11.2 million extremely low-income renters, or that it is estimated that in the majority of states, “between 10 percent and 15 percent of households are housing insecure.”

A Vox research analysis last fall found that the subject of housing did not even make the top 10 issues addressed during the Democratic presidential debates. Housing should not be treated as a peripheral social and economic issue but a foundational one. 

Some have estimated that Congress “must provide no less than $100 billion to ensure housing stability for the lowest-income renters during and after the pandemic.” But the problem does not simply necessitate more spending, but better spending. 

We must marshal our existing national housing resources more creatively, foster greater public-private partnerships, allow for increased administrative flexibility, and work overtime to weed out waste and inefficiency while keeping an eagle-eyed focus on deterring fraud — which, alas, has too often afflicted national housing administration.

Astonishingly, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does not require regular impact reports from the 3400 public housing agencies it oversees. Not only must that change but the very existence of some of these 3400 agencies should also be a reform target. Public housing agencies are not post offices. There is, demonstrably, room for consolidation of some of these agencies —to generate potential economies of scale and cost savings.

Federal policymakers must also work to ensure that crucial existing national housing laws are as broadly adopted as they were intended to be.

A cornerstone of federal housing policy is Section 8 housing choice vouchers, which allow low-income people to find and pay for housing units of their choice on the open market at a subsidized rate. Unfortunately, many low-income persons find landlords unwilling to accept Section 8 vouchers. Some states have passed laws prohibiting such a “source of income” discrimination. But as most states have not, we need a federal remedy.

Another key to reformed national housing policy should be the mandating of a nationwide adoption of existing policies and initiatives designed to spur low-income economic opportunities and job creation.

Section 3 of the 1968 HUD Act, for example, is intended to encourage training, employment, contracting and other economic opportunities for low-income people, and every public housing authority should be required to implement fully a Section 3 plan, as many do not today.

HUD’s Moving to Work initiative, established in 1996, helps housing residents find employment and become self-sufficient while allowing housing authorities to adopt innovative, locally crafted strategies that harness federal monies more efficiently — but just 39 of the 3400 public housing authorities are signed on to the program.

These programs can help catalyze a holistic approach to housing policy — melding it together with efforts to induce economic growth and programs focusing on jobs and training, transportation, education, and health. Ultimately, the only way to make distressed communities whole is through policies that treat them as a whole. We must see ubiquitous access to good, affordable housing as an absolute prerequisite to the economic and social well-being of the individual and the community at large. 

 “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us,” said Winston Churchill.  America’s national housing policy must help shape not just good structures but good homes, not just good tenants but good citizens, and foundations that support not just brick and steel but thriving communities.

Eugene Jones Jr. is the president and CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority, and has also led housing agencies in Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Indianapolis and Toronto, and has been responsible for the building of over $3 billion of housing developments during his 35-year career.

Tags economy Federal assistance in the United States Housing Section 8 Social programs United States Department of Housing and Urban Development

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