House Democrats scramble to save housing as Biden eyes cuts

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) addresses members prior to a press conference on Tuesday, October 12, 2021 to advocate for funding for housing to be included in the Build Back Better Act.
Greg Nash

House Democrats rallied support Thursday behind the affordable housing provisions in President Biden’s proposed social services bill with hundreds of billions in investments on the chopping block.

Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee, witnesses who’ve struggled with housing insecurity and a range of advocates urged party leaders not to scrap more than $300 billion meant to expand and repair affordable housing.

“We cannot build back better without investing in our nation’s crumbling housing infrastructure. Housing is not a miscellaneous afterthought, a nice-to-have, a ‘something that can wait until later,’” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the Financial Services panel’s chairwoman, who has long prioritized housing issues as the Democratic leader on the committee.

“Housing is foundational and America has waited long enough,” she continued.

Biden’s initial $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” proposal unveiled this summer included historic investments in public housing construction and repair, down payment and rental assistance, affordable housing construction incentives and rezoning grants. But those provisions are among several likely to be pared back as Democrats cut the package down to appease moderate members unwilling to spend more than $1.5 trillion.

Biden and Democratic leaders are attempting to strike a deal on a broad framework by the end of the week, giving Waters and affordable housing advocates a narrow window for defending their provisions. 

“We’re here today with an opportunity to put everyday Americans first by putting housing first. You have to be bold in order to be successful. Failure is not an option,” Waters said.

She and fellow Democrats emphasized the need to pass Biden’s entire housing proposal as both rents and housing prices continue a staggering rise exacerbated by the pandemic. Without these provisions, she warned, millions of Americans would continue to fall behind and face homelessness.

The panel’s first slate of witnesses included several individuals either facing housing troubles themselves or involved in housing aid organizations who strongly supported Biden’s full proposal.

Michael Edmonds, a resident of a Tuscon, Ariz., public housing development, stressed the importance of public housing renovation funds to repairing broken elevators and leaky ceilings in his community. And Fernanda Gallindo, a struggling renter in Washington, D.C., explained how rental assistance would help her afford medical coverage and something larger than a studio apartment for her and her child.

“If Congress doesn’t ensure people have access to safe, reliable, affordable housing, it will undermine my and others ability to hold down a job, pay rent and bills and build a better life for our families,” Gallindo said.

Republicans on the panel, who are unanimously opposed to Biden’s proposal, expressed sympathy for the witnesses struggling with housing issues, but accused Democratic leaders of using them as pawns in intraparty squabbling.

“Let’s see if I got this straight: a Democrat-controlled White House is cutting Democrat provisions from a Democrat bill written by Democrats to try to wrangle enough Democrat votes to pass it,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), the panel’s ranking member.

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) called the hearing a “purely political and egregious misuse of time and resources” driven by a failure to  “sell their own agenda to the American people or to their own colleagues.”

Republicans largely side-stepped the debate over Biden’s housing proposal and instead attacked the president’s broader economic agenda, including his proposed tax plan. GOP lawmakers directed most of their questions to Jan Lee, a New York landlord representing Small Property Owners of New York (SPONY), and focused primarily on the impact of eviction moratoriums, local regulations and potential tax hikes under Biden.

“We are humans in the care of humans, but we are not magicians. We need to be made stable and made whole, but time is running out for us,” he said. “We’re hardworking small business owners who have our own bills to pay and struggle in tough economic times, just like everyone else.”

While the U.S. suffered from an affordable housing shortage long before the emergence of COVID-19, the pandemic severely exacerbated the crisis. Housing prices have skyrocketed through historic highs and have grown at the highest annual rate since the lead-up the 2007-08 recession. Rents have also risen significantly over the past several months after falling during the pandemic, boosting the pressure of higher inflation across the economy.

Democrats have also stressed the importance of a massive investment in housing to help close the widening racial wealth and homeownership gaps.

The committee is scheduled to hear from a second panel of housing experts and advocates Thursday afternoon.

Tags Ann Wagner economy Housing Joe Biden Maxine Waters Patrick McHenry Public housing spending bill

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