Affordable housing is critical infrastructure — its funding doesn't show it

Affordable housing is critical infrastructure — its funding doesn't show it
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"It’s fascinating that we can target investment to corporate America, but when it comes to everyday folks who are struggling to make ends meet, we don’t have any money,” I told members of the House Financial Services Committee. 

Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersCrypto firm top executives to testify before Congress Powell, Yellen say they underestimated inflation and supply snarls The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to update Americans on omicron; Congress back MORE (D-Calif.) invited me to testify during the hearing “Building Back Better: Examining the Need for Investments in America's Housing and Financial Infrastructure,” but the conversation shifted from the nation’s housing crisis to gripes about cost. I explained that this was our opportunity to invest in the very communities that were on the frontlines during the pandemic who ensured so many of us could be comfortable in our own homes; that the cost must meet the scale of the problem. And yet, here we are.

Currently, Congressional leaders are negotiating what critical programs should be cut from the Build Back Better Act to appease the interests of just two senators, and housing is on the chopping block — despite the impact housing has on all other parts of the legislation.

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As it currently stands, the bill would provide critical investments in affordable housing, including new resources for public housing, housing for seniors and people with disabilities, and a historic boost to rental assistance that would allow up to 1.7 million people to afford safe and stable housing. The bill would support hundreds of thousands of first-generation homebuyers, who are disproportionately people of color, with down payment assistance, helping to close the racial wealth gap. It would also invest in community-led projects that create shared amenities, generate local economic activity, and ensure more people than ever live in communities of opportunity.

Research shows that these long-overdue investments would improve overall health and safety, improve life outcomes for children, increase economic stability and transform communities. Like air to breathe and food to eat, safe shelter is a basic human need. It is not surprising then that the proposals are popular among voters across party lines. A recent poll by the Morning Consult and Politico found that 70 percent of voters supported affordable housing investments, stronger levels of support than other Build Back Better priorities.

These programs are at risk, however, because leaders in Washington fail to understand how critical housing is to every aspect of our lives. They view housing as simply a supply issue, ignoring how housing policies have shaped the physical landscape of inequality through segregation, disinvestment and exclusion and have inhibited millions from accessing past infrastructure investments. 

Our country’s approach to housing and infrastructure investments has deprived Black, Indigenous and other communities of color of opportunity, exposed far too many to harmful pollution and literally shaved decades off of average life expectancies. 

During the Obama administration, PolicyLink co-designed and served as a technical assistance provider for the Sustainable Communities Initiative, working with 143 regional and municipal grantees of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency to incorporate equity outcomes into their work. Since this time, we have collectively built a strong community of practice and have drawn lessons and insights that we can apply to the infrastructure package. 

First, those programs demonstrated that comprehensive solutions were required for infrastructure development, including equitable education, housing and even the physical design of communities to better promote health and prosperity for all. Second, the most successful and durable investments are the ones that align with, support and center community-designed and community-led solutions. The Build Back Better Act gives us an opportunity to build off of these lessons at a scale commensurate with the size of the problems our country faces.

As congressional leaders and the White House continue to negotiate a path forward for the social infrastructure bill, they must keep the housing provisions intact. For too long, we have let housing be seen as nothing more than a commodity, rather than a basic human need that serves as the foundation of our communities. Every person deserves the right to a safe, secure, and affordable place to live no matter what we look like or where we come from. 

The federal government must support a new approach to infrastructure for our 21st century multiracial democracy — one that centers the 100 million economically insecure people in this country and ensures every person is securely housed. That is what it means to build back better.

Michael McAfee is president and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute focused on advancing racial and economic equity. Follow him on Twitter: @mikemcafee06