From the federal government? The amount of direct subsidy currently provided by the federal government, while helpful, makes a very small dent in meeting housing needs. Affordable-housing subsidy is near the bottom of the priority list for most U.S. voters and members of Congress. This is unlikely to change, even if and when the United States gets its fiscal house in order.
Tax credits for investing in affordable-housing projects attracts capital for such projects and lowers development financing costs. But this indirect subsidy strategy catalyzes relatively little housing production or rehabilitation in comparison with the total need.
From the states? Struggling to cope with falling or stagnant tax-revenue levels, rising public-service costs and persistent budget imbalances, few states will be willing or able to allocate much of their budgets to subsidize housing.
This leaves counties, cities and the private sector. Again, despite good intentions, their efforts to create and sustain affordable housing, whether through directly budgeted subsidies or tax and density incentives, will fall far short of meeting persistently growing shortages.
To make matters worse, America’s inventory of affordable dwelling units is decreasing rather than increasing. As government-subsidy contracts expire, affordable-housing projects are being converted to market-rate housing. Quantitatively we are not even breaking even.
The painful reality is that the nation, in general, and Washington, in particular, seem unlikely to address housing affordability at a meaningful scale. For some citizens, affordable housing is of low priority for economic reasons. For others, it’s a matter of political ideology. They believe that government should play no role at all in producing affordable housing. They would oppose housing subsidies even if funds were available.
What will Washington be like in, say, 2050? Much of its real estate will be expensive, and its population will be more ethnically diverse. Fewer residents will be facing poverty because most of the economically disadvantaged will have moved to outlying counties, cities and towns where unsubsidized housing still may be affordable. But they will face another problem. Depending on where they work, they could spend a lot of their time and hard-earned money commuting.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.