During our “You Be the Moderator” project, in which Post readers submitted questions they would like to see candidates answer during a debate, one reader asked: “Cities such as New York and San Francisco have many of the best opportunities for finding high-paying jobs. Those same cities also have skyrocketing housing prices. Keeping in mind that many of the laws that determine housing prices, such as zoning laws or rent control, are enacted at the local level, what will you do to help make housing in these cities more affordable?”
Of all the policy issues that have been ignored in the current election cycle, housing may be one of the most surprising. The United States has simultaneously experienced a decline in homeownership and a sharp rise in rent prices over the past decade. This has put a squeeze on middle- and low-income people searching for affordable housing, especially in cities.
Hillary Clinton has proposed a $25 billion housing program to deal with the problem, and while Donald Trump hasn’t outlined a plan to address housing, he has expressed frustration over falling homeownership.
Is expanding subsidies and federal money the right approach to address unaffordable housing? What role should the next administration play in tackling local and state laws that restrict housing development and raise prices?
Erika C. Poethig is an institute fellow and director of urban policy initiatives at the Urban Institute. Most recently, she was acting assistant secretary for the Office of Policy Development and Research at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Housing for America’s lowest-income families rarely ever makes the front page and has been noticeably absent from both candidates’ stump speeches. Yet 81 percent of respondents in a recent MacArthur Foundation poll said housing affordability is a problem in America, and 63 percent said presidential candidates aren’t paying enough attention to the issue. Housing is both a cost-saving safety net and a platform for individuals and families to improve their health, education and economic outcomes. When people cannot afford housing, it undermines families’ ability to reach the next rung on the economic ladder and prevents older adults from aging safely and securely.
Today, nearly 20 million renter households qualify for federal rental assistance, but only one in four receives it. There is simply not enough money appropriated by Congress to cover everyone who qualifies for rental assistance. In contrast, all qualified homeowners filing an itemized tax return receive the mortgage interest deduction, regardless of their income. The United States needs a more balanced housing policy that invests equally in homeownership and rental housing.
Over the next 15 years, the demand for rental housing will continue to grow. The number of senior renters is projected to double from 5.8 million to 12.2 million households. More than a quarter will pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent. The federal government has to be an essential part of solving this affordability challenge. Developing housing that America’s poorest families can afford to rent just isn’t possible without government subsidies.
Given the current and growing need, we must create a new generation of rental assistance focused on the most vulnerable households. We must leverage housing as a platform for service delivery and access to opportunity by targeting expanded rental assistance to families with children earning less than 30 percent of area median income, people with disabilities and older adults on fixed incomes.
Targeting these vulnerable populations pays dividends. Stable housing generates cost savings in other federal programs: Evidence suggests that for homeless families that face affordability challenges, rental assistance is more effective than costly services, such as psychosocial interventions and therapies. In fact, targeting housing assistance to extremely low-income families is the most cost-effective strategy for reducing childhood poverty in the United States. In addition, connecting housing to services for older adults, such as health-care coordination, has led to reductions in Medicare spending. Permanent supportive housing for people with disabilities has demonstrated reductions in homelessness and in costly emergency room visits and hospitalizations often covered by Medicaid.
Housing affordability is a long-term, systemic problem that has become a crisis, especially for America’s poorest families and individuals. This problem touches nearly every community in the United States. It will only worsen as demand for affordable rental housing increases and the supply of federal rental assistance does not.
Increasing investment in federal rental assistance has bipartisan support, yet neither candidate nor political party has made it an explicit part of their policy platform. Now is the time to move it to the top of the agenda.