Build Back Better can restore what’s been gutted from US housing

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Democrats and Republicans alike have called Build Back Better “transformative,” albeit with different meanings and implications. So have many advocates, myself included, and some of the bill’s provisions may in fact merit that designation.  

But for some issues — such as housing — I’ve come to realize that using this term is both inaccurate and unhelpful.   

Of course, Build Back Better would have a huge, transformative impact on the lives of millions of Americans who are now struggling.  But that’s because it would restore support that has been decimated over the past decades. As a matter of social policy, the operative term is restoration, not transformation. Calling restoration transformation is misleading, and it does not help explain the reality of the multiple current crises we are facing.  

Those crises have their roots in deliberate policy choices made decades ago. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan came into office with the goal of shrinking the footprint of the federal government. Among the primary targets were social programs for low-income people.  

The resulting cuts were devasting. In 1979, the federal government funded 347,600 new units of low-income housing; in 1983, that number was 2,630. As a discretionary program — subject to Congressional appropriations — housing was and remains especially vulnerable.  

Other social programs targeted, such as income supports for disabled poor people and for poor families with children, were entitlements, meaning you got them if you met the eligibility requirements, so their funding couldn’t just be cut. So instead, the administration tightened eligibility requirements and made the application process so difficult that people who should have gotten them were denied.  

These changes put enormous pressure on lower-income people. It’s no coincidence that the early to mid-1980s was when homelessness first exploded as a mass phenomenon in the U.S.   

The cuts to funding for low-income housing launched by the Reagan administration have never been replaced; as a result, currently, only one in four of those poor enough to qualify for federal housing assistance receive it.   

Build Back Better would begin to restore those cuts, and to undo the damage of all those decades. 

It would transform the lives of millions of people now living in grossly inadequate, often dangerous, housing, or doubled or tripled up because can’t afford their own housing, in their cars, or in no housing at all — on the streets or in shelters.  

But it would not “dramatically reshape our society,” in the words of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). It would begin to restore it to a time some of us still remember — before people began living in tents, cars and other makeshift dwellings, in cities, suburbs and rural areas, too poor to afford housing.     

Some countries include a right to housing in their constitutions; ours does not expressly do so. But support for recognizing this basic human right is growing: President Biden has said “housing should be a right, not a privilege,” as have members of Congress, state legislators and local officials.  

Recognizing housing as the human right that it is would be game-changing for the millions who experience homelessness each year or teeter on its edge, for the millions more who struggle to afford housing, skimping on food or medicine to pay the rent or the mortgage.  

But as a concept and policy, it too would not be as transformative as it may seem.  

After WWII the U.S. led the world in crafting and adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects basic economic and social rights, including “food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”  In the immediate aftermath, Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949, which set a goal of “a decent home and suitable living environment for “every American family.”  

Right now, we’re farther than ever from our declaration to the world and the goal articulated by Congress. To make good on those long ago, still unredeemed promises, we must embrace housing as a human right. 

Enacting the Build Back Better Act would be a modest but critically needed step towards honoring those commitments.    

Maria Foscarinis is a lawyer, founder and former executive director of the National Homeless Law Center and lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School. 

Tags Affordable housing Homelessness Housing Joe Biden Joe Manchin Public housing Social programs subsidized housing

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