A few weekends ago in St. Michaels, Md., I briefly visited a financially subsidized rental housing development for the aging designed by my firm in the late 1970s. It was one of six mini-villages in five Eastern Shore counties, a total of 130 units financed by a $4 million Section 202 loan from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

As I arrived in the 24-unit cluster's landscaped courtyard, a tenant emerged from her apartment and, with a hospitable yet slightly skeptical expression, asked what we were looking for. Acknowledging my role in the project, I asked what she thought of the place--always a risky question for an architect to pose. Fortunately, she smiled and explained how much she enjoyed both her affordable apartment and the intimate community she recently had joined.

It was a profoundly satisfying moment. Yet it reminded me how much public policy regarding subsidized housing has regressed over the past two decades. We continue building affordable housing, but much less than in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, and much less than is needed. Worse still, although new units are added to the affordable-housing inventory each year, even more units are being lost.

For architects who design affordable housing, the 1960s and 1970s were indeed the good old days, a time when Congress, through HUD, assisted hundreds of thousands of needy households each year through construction of new units, rehabilitation of existing units and Section 8 rental assistance.

With the arrival of Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1981, funds for housing shrank dramatically. In fiscal 1979, the number of new units receiving rental assistance under HUD's budget was about 334,000. In 1982, the number had dropped to less than 63,000, and during the 1980s not all units budgeted were built.

Since the 1980s, federal housing policy has actually worsened. Reflecting a persistent national attitude that viewed affordable housing as a marginal concern, Congress provided HUD with money for fewer than 20,000 new assisted units each year from 1995 to 1998.

Vouchers, not new construction, have become the primary federal tool for meeting affordable-housing needs. Vouchers make up the difference between the fair market rent for a suitable apartment and 30 percent of a qualified tenant's household income. The theory is that, with vouchers in hand, low-income tenants can compete for space--assuming space is available--in the unsubsidized housing market, just like everyone else looking for a place to live.

The free-market policy initiated by the Reagan administration also was predicated on letting state and local governments, not HUD, worry about financing the construction of most affordable housing. Some states, counties and municipalities have tried to pick up the slack, but many have not.

Thus, over the past two decades national housing policy has waffled between do-nothing and do-a-little-more-than-nothing.

Even more disturbing are trends and data reported by HUD in the report, "The Widening Gap: New Findings on Housing Affordability in America." The report cites surveys by the Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that, from 1991 to 1997, the inventory of affordable housing diminished by 372,000 units nationally, about 5 percent. Yet between 1995 and 1997, the number of "struggling" renter households increased by 3 percent.

To make economic matters worse, market rents increased at twice the rate of inflation--rising 3.4 percent while the consumer price index rose 1.7 percent in 1998.

A fourth of all renter households in the United States are reportedly "struggling:" Their incomes are below 30 percent of the median, yet they pay more than 30 percent of income for housing.

To put this in perspective, 30 percent of median household income for a family of four in the District is $23,600. A minimum-wage employee working full time, every week of the year, earns only $10,700 annually, and a retiree living on Social Security receives about $14,000 a year.

The bottom line is that, despite America's prosperity, a significant segment of the working population, plus millions of the elderly and infirm, cannot obtain decent, basic shelter. As HUD's report notes, the large gap between the number of struggling households and the number of affordable rental units has been steadily widening and continues to widen. In 1997, for every 100 needy households, only 36 apartments were both affordable and available.

The worsening gap is not caused just by insufficient low-income housing construction and rising numbers of struggling households. Thousands of existing units become unaffordable annually when landlords in communities throughout the United States decide not to remain in the project-based Section 8 program.

In the next five years, more than 900,000 HUD contracts will expire, after which apartment owners can opt out of the affordability program and rent or sell units at going market prices. With rising demand and a tight supply, the temptation to opt out is very strong.

Even HUD's laudable Hope VI program, launched a few years ago to provide funds to demolish obsolete, mostly high-rise public housing and replace it with better designed, low-rise housing, will not close the gap. In fact, Hope VI is likely to shrink the country's inventory of low-income housing, because new Hope VI housing is generally less dense than the demolished housing being replaced.

The new $26 billion HUD budget for fiscal 2000, signed into law last week by President Clinton, attempts to both preserve and expand the supply of affordable housing. Surpassing last year's budget by $1.5 billion, it includes $347 million for 60,000 new rental-assistance vouchers, the largest expansion in seven years, and adds $575 million for Hope VI public housing revitalization. It also provides incentives for owners of high-quality affordable housing to choose not to opt out of the Section 8 program, along with rent subsidies for tenants in apartments whose owners do opt out.

But in the aggregate, HUD's appropriation is still peanuts, a Band-Aid strategy woefully inadequate for seriously addressing America's deepening affordable-housing deficit.

And the deficit is likely to get worse as the size of America's aging population keeps growing. Ironically, the baby boom generation, having supported the 1980s shift to a free-market housing approach, may be in for a surprise one day when those who are less affluent discover they can neither find nor afford a decent place to live.

Roger Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.