NetHomeless

Making Housing for Everyone a Reality

“A decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.”

That phrase is from the Housing Act of 1949, enacted as part of the “Fair Deal” promoted by President Harry Truman. It’s the clearest statement of a goal for federal legislation in this area. Seven decades later, the United States has not met that goal.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of Americans live on the streets, and hundreds of thousands more live in shelters or in unstable living situations. Millions pay more rent than they can afford, meaning other needs go unmet. Eviction is a regular part of the experience of people with only modest incomes. Many of those in their own homes are in danger because of unsafe conditions.

In recent years, the goal to advance federal housing legislation has been revisited and taken more seriously. Survey research shows a substantial majority of Americans believe the federal government should prioritize it. Meanwhile, leaders in an increasingly broad number of fields have come to recognize how unstable housing has impacted their own missions. And, of course, the Coronavirus pandemic has driven home the vulnerability of people who lose their housing.

This attention reached a new level in 2020 when Presidential Candidate Joe Biden included in his platform a proposal to increase the size of the Housing Choice Voucher program so that everyone who is eligible gets help. The voucher program is the largest federal housing program, but for many decades Congress has only funded it to help about one quarter of the eligible households, and everybody else goes on a waiting list.

So far, the Biden Administration has secured from Congress important – but limited – increases to the size of the program, but the current situation raises the question: If we want to embark on a serious effort to ensure that everyone has housing that they can afford, that they can count on being safe and stable, and that provides a base for opportunity, what would the basics of a strategy look like to bring that about?

This post is a proposal, building on work that many other people have done. It’s one set of ideas, that I’m sure can be vastly improved by others who I hope will read this, think about it, and get involved in making it (or something even better) happen.

The goals and basic components of a strategy

The overall goal, to flesh out the language of the 1949 Fair Housing Act, is to have enough decent housing, in locations where people want to live, with sufficient opportunities that people with even the lowest incomes can pay for.

Starting with things that are already in place, below are a set of objectives and policy improvements that could lead to further progress and ultimately to the desired result. This is hardly a complete strategy, but I hope it presents a basic idea of what needs to get done and how it might happen.

Advance Advocacy and Organizing Around Fair Housing – Housing injustice affects people of color the most. In city after city and at the state and federal level, explicit policies related to housing have confined people of color to certain neighborhoods, and then invested the most in areas that had been reserved for white people. A meaningful federal housing strategy must build power among people of color who can advocate and organize, using existing laws and remedies such as the Fair Housing Act to begin to make progress. Voting rights are crucial. Under current circumstances, concrete results may be modest, but may include better choices for people of color about where to live, improved investment in neighborhoods where people of color live now, and improved empowerment. Investment in organizations that are doing this work, and building leadership, will pay dividends.

Build Substantially More Allies – As noted above and as the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign has shown, a range of interests at the national level has come to illustrate the importance of widespread stable housing to meeting their goals. This includes so much more than those of us who work on homelessness and housing. It includes issues of racial injustice; education; healthcare; the wellbeing of veterans, children, and people with disabilities; economic inequality; hunger; and employment. Continuing to build and broaden these coalitions will make it increasingly possible to work with policymakers on a bipartisan basis. The policy developments cost money, but they save money in certain instances as well, and contribute to community wellbeing in a manner that any elected official needs to pay attention to.

Expand the Housing Choice Voucher Program – For the past decade, advocacy groups have been able to secure modest increases in the voucher program, by pursuing targeted increases for specific populations: homeless veterans, people with mental illness, youth aging out of the child welfare system, families escaping domestic violence. However, public support for the Biden campaign’s proposal to increase the size of the Housing Choice Voucher program, makes it possible to envision substantial additional growth and ultimately enough funding to serve every family eligible for housing assistance.

 

The biggest problem with the voucher program is chronic underfunding. There are, however, some other reforms needed so that the voucher program can be expanded to the extent necessary.

 

  1. Use vouchers to improve Fair Housing: There are a set of well-known policies and practices to make the voucher program less likely to drive invidious segregation, such as using “fair market rent” data (surveys of rents that determine how much the Public Housing Authority [PHA] pays each month) that is broken down by neighborhood, so that vouchers can be used in more expensive neighborhoods where fewer people of color live.
  1. Improving collaboration: PHAs can learn from work done by Rapid Re-Housing providers in the homelessness system how to do outreach to landlords, and make the program more attractive to them.
  1. Increase project-basing: Project-basing can increase, so that vouchers can be part of financing deals for new affordable housing development.
  1. Make the program easier to use: Tenants, landlords, and PHAs would all benefit from a simpler and easer Housing Choice Voucher program. We need to make mobility between jurisdictions simpler, and update fair market rents faster in order to keep up with hot rental markets – if apartments.com can do it, the national housing system can!

Create More Affordable Housing – All that being said, to use all the vouchers we will need more housing, developed for this purpose. Some of the items we need to focus on towards this objective:

 

  1. Expand federal development subsidies: The United States has plenty of experience with federal development subsidy programs. Again, funding for these programs, particularly the National Housing Trust Fund, needs to be increased.
  1. Crunch the numbers: We need serious analysis about how many units of new housing will be needed and where.
  1. Enforce equity protections: Local governments’ obligation under federal law to “affirmatively further fair housing” needs to be enforced so that people have a wide range of attractive alternatives about where to live.
  1. Support community-based non-profits: Most newly developed housing that caters to tenants with income low enough to put them at risk of homelessness is operated by community-based nonprofit organizations. Building the capacity of such organizations will be an important part of this strategy. The growth of that sector will tend to make affordable housing a widely recognized public good rather than a commodity, increasing the sense that these are stable communities where the people who live there have power to create their lives as they see fit.

This raises the question of what “decent housing” amounts to. Tiny houses (and worker dorms in some countries) are a good deal “less” housing than the typical apartment building provides. Are they enough? That is a question that will have to be worked out.

Enhance Housing Stabilization Services and Laws – No matter how efficient a system to subsidize housing, people will have crises and need help to resolve them with their housing secure. This has driven the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign to propose not only rent and capital subsidies, but also programs of short-term assistance for rent and other costs. These proposals have been incorporated in bipartisan legislation that has attracted wide support in Congress.

 

An important addition to these efforts would be enacting local and national legislation to prevent unjust evictions.

Thinking bigger

As more and more people have affordable housing, with costs covered by the federal government, it will raise the question whether more substantial changes are called for – to increase efficiency and fairness, and treat housing less like a commodity and more like a public good. The complex interaction with PHAs under the voucher program could be eliminated if tenants received cash based on the need to pay rent, but are allowed to decide how best to use the cash themselves.

Innovative strategies will require thinking outside of the box, like with limited equity cooperatives: a model where residents as a group own the property, and the value of financial appreciation stays with the collective.

Further outside the box would be a more universal guarantee: rather than everyone who needs it getting help paying rent, we can imagine a system where everyone gets a modest home, for free, at age 22, and can live in it or trade it back in for a new model if they move or their family composition changes, the way that every parent now can send their five-year-old to their public school. If people wanted more than “modest” they could certainly pay for that, the way some people pay for private school now, but it would become an expectation that government would ensure that decent housing is available to everyone. People who rely now on their homes as investments would have money to invest in less volatile and more job-intensive assets.

First steps – This is a broad strategy, so it’s helpful to break things down to discreet tactics. My suggestion is to focus on the following items:

 

  1. advocate for increased vouchers, as included in the Build Back Better legislation and in the President’s budget request for fiscal year 2022;
  1. research the amount of new development that will ultimately be needed and where;
  1. push hard for communities to implement the affirmatively furthering fair housing requirements;
  1. build local organizing and advocacy capacity; build alliances among advocates and policymakers; and
  1. seek commitments from Congressional allies about the pace of increases to funding programs.

A few small things!


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