Infrastructure package should address housing for neediest Americans

Infrastructure package should address housing for neediest Americans
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With a comprehensive infrastructure package, Congress should look beyond just roads and bridges to address one of the most critical issues facing extremely low-income families today: the severe shortage of decent, accessible, and affordable homes. While it is unclear whether Congress and the White House can strike an agreement on infrastructure, it is vital that policymakers recognize why deeply affordable housing should be central to any deal.

Today, nearly 8 million of our nation’s lowest-income households live in housing poverty, spending more than half of their limited incomes on housing and having too little left for other basic needs. An additional half million people experience homelessness on any given night.

Nationally, there are fewer than 4 homes affordable and available to every 10 of the lowest-income seniors, people with disabilities or families with kids. Just one in four eligible households gets the assistance they need to afford a place to call home.

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The private market cannot on its own meet the housing needs of the poorest renters. Without government intervention, decent and affordable homes cannot be reliably built, operated and maintained at a price the lowest-income households can afford. Federal subsidies are necessary — but federal investments in affordable housing have been declining for decades.

In addition to the tremendous need to produce new homes affordable to the lowest-income people, we must preserve our country’s existing affordable housing infrastructure. While public housing — home to over 2.1 million low-income people — plays a critical role in addressing America’s affordable housing needs, Congress has underfunded public housing for decades. Between 2000 and 2016, funding for public housing repairs was cut in half. As a result, many public housing agencies have been unable to make needed repairs to preserve these homes. Our country loses 10,000 to 15,000 public housing apartments annually to obsolescence or decay, and other units fall into deep disrepair.

An infrastructure spending package is an opportunity for Congress to respond.

Like other infrastructure investments, affordable housing is a long-term asset that helps communities and families thrive. Investments in affordable homes increases economic mobility, strengthens communities, creates jobs, and lifts local economies.

Congress should start by including in any infrastructure package the investments proposed by Housing Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersHillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns House panel to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency project On The Money: S&P hits record as stocks rally on Fed cut hopes | Facebook's new cryptocurrency raises red flags for critics | Internal IRS watchdog rips agency's taxpayer service | Apple seeks tariff relief MORE in her “Housing is Infrastructure Act.” This bill would provide at least $5 billion to expand the national Housing Trust Fund to directly address the severe shortage of affordable rental homes for people with the lowest incomes, and it would invest $70 billion for the Public Housing Capital Fund. This investment could quickly be used to repair America’s deteriorating public housing infrastructure by fixing leaky roofs, replacing outdated heating systems, and remediating mold to improve the health and living conditions for millions, while creating local jobs and protecting a key piece of America’s affordable rental housing stock.

As infrastructure bills move forward in Congress, we must guard against proposals to increase the income levels targeted by existing federal housing programs or to create new programs to subsidize middle-income, market-rate housing. Using scarce federal dollars on market-rate housing is misguided and wasteful.

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In most areas of the country, the private market meets the housing needs of middle-income households. Where it doesn’t, the federal government’s role should be to incentivize or require local communities to decrease regulatory and zoning barriers to private-sector development. Restrictive local regulations limit the supply of rental housing, driving up the costs for everyone. By tying federal dollars to incentives or requirements for localities to reexamine local barriers to development, Congress can help bolster the ability of the private sector to add housing supply for low- and moderate-income renters.

Scarce federal dollars should support the development of affordable homes for those the private market cannot serve on its own: extremely low-income renters.

America’s affordable housing crisis is solvable, but requires action from all levels of government. A comprehensive infrastructure package that includes significant investments in preserving and building deeply affordable rental homes for America’s poorest families, together with incentives for local governments to reverse restrictive zoning, is an important first step to ending homelessness and housing poverty in America once and for all.

Diane Yentel is the president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which was founded in 1974 and works for socially just public policy that assures people with the lowest incomes have affordable and decent homes.