Dept. of Affordable Housing

The Housing Crisis Goes Suburban

Changing places: In Fairfax County today, families earning $90,000 or less can qualify for the latest in public housing . . .
Changing places: In Fairfax County today, families earning $90,000 or less can qualify for the latest in public housing . . . (Sudanese Immigrants Nahid Osman, Left, And Ashraf Abdon Live With Their Family At The Island Walk Public Housing Development In Reston; By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, August 27, 2006

In the past five years, housing prices in Fairfax County have grown 12 times as fast as household incomes. Today, the county's median family would have to spend 54 percent of its income to afford the county's median home; in 2000, the figure was 26 percent. The situation is so dire that Fairfax recently began offering housing subsidies to families earning $90,000 a year; soon, that figure may go as high as $110,000 a year.

Seventy years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that the Depression had left one-third of the American people "ill-housed, ill-clothed and ill-nourished," Americans are well-clothed and increasingly overnourished. But the scarcity of affordable housing is a deepening national crisis, and not just for inner-city families on welfare. The problem has climbed the income ladder and moved to the suburbs, where service workers cram their families into overcrowded apartments, college graduates have to crash with their parents, and firefighters, police officers and teachers can't afford to live in the communities they serve.

Homeownership is near an all-time high, but the gap is growing between the Owns and the Own-Nots -- as well as the Owns and the Own-80-Miles-From-Works. One-third of Americans now spend at least

30 percent of their income on housing, the federal definition of an "unaffordable" burden, and half the working poor spend at least 50 percent of their income on rent, a "critical" burden. The real estate boom of the past decade has produced windfalls for Americans who owned before it began, but affordable housing is now a serious problem for more low- and moderate-income Americans than taxes, Social Security or gas prices.

Yet nobody in national politics is doing anything about it -- or even talking about it.

For most of the past 70 years, housing was a bipartisan issue. In recent decades, its association with urban poverty made it more of a Democratic issue. But now it is simply a nonissue. The current crunch falls hardest on renters in Democratic-leaning cities and metropolitan areas, but Democrats have ignored the issue as resolutely as Republicans. Neither Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) nor President Bush even bothered to propose affordable housing plans during the 2004 presidential campaign.

"Even 10 years ago, that would have been unimaginable," says Ron Utt of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "But now the problems are so much worse, and nobody cares. . . . I find myself on panels where I'm the token conservative, and I'm the one asking: Doesn't anyone care about affordable housing?"

America used to care a lot about affordable housing. Roosevelt signed housing legislation in 1934 and 1937, providing mortgages, government apartments and construction jobs for workers down on their luck. In 1949, Congress set an official goal of "a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family," and in 1974, President Richard M. Nixon began offering subsidized rent vouchers to millions of low-income tenants in private housing. For half a century, most housing debates in Washington revolved around how much to expand federal assistance.

But for the past two decades, the public face of public housing has been decrepit projects such as Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green. And the only new federal housing initiative has been HOPE VI, a Clinton administration program that has demolished 80,000 units of the worst public housing and built mixed-income developments in their place. The program has eliminated most of the high-rise hellholes that gave public housing a bad name, including Robert Taylor and Cabrini-Green, and has revived some urban neighborhoods. But it has razed more subsidized apartments than it has replaced.

Overall, the number of households receiving federal aid has flatlined since the early 1990s, despite an expanding population and a ballooning budget. Congress has rejected most of President Bush's proposed cuts, but there has been virtually no discussion of increases; affordable-housing advocates spend most of their time fighting to preserve the status quo.

And it's a tough status quo. Today, for every one of the 4.5 million low-income families that receive federal housing assistance, there are three eligible families without it. Fairfax County has 12,000 families on a waiting list for 4,000 assisted apartments. "It's golden when you get one -- nobody wants to give it up," says Conrad Egan, chairman of the Fairfax housing authority. It sounds odd, but the victims of today's housing crisis are not people living in "the projects," but people who aren't even that lucky.

Some liberals dream of extending subsidies to all eligible low-income families, but that $100 billion-a-year solution was unrealistic even before the budget deficit ballooned again. So even some housing advocates now support time limits on most federal rent aid. The time limits included in welfare reform 10 years ago were controversial, but studies suggest they've helped motivate recipients to get off the dole. And unlike welfare, housing aid is not a federal entitlement, so taking it away from one family after a few years would provide a break for an equally deserving family.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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