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Millions of poor families could benefit from housing aid Trump wants to cut

Sonya Brown Wilson protests a condo being built in Miami. Demonstrators are asking for affordable housing to be set aside in the city and county. Miami-Dade, which includes the City of Miami, has one of the nation's largest gaps between home prices and wages. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The number of poor families struggling to pay their monthly rents or living in deplorable accommodations has grown 41 percent since the beginning of the Great Recession a decade ago, despite a stronger national economy, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

More than 8.3 million very low-income households in 2015 qualified for, but did not receive, federal housing assistance because there is not enough to go around, according to the agency's latest biennial assessment of “worst case housing needs.” That approaches the record high of 8.5 million in 2011 after historic increases during the mortgage foreclosure crisis.

The report blamed growing competition for a shrinking supply of affordable residences for the increase, a result of declining homeownership and rising rents, in addition to a widening gap between the number of renters in need and the availability of federal assistance.

The crisis cuts across all geographic and racial demographics, but hits those living in the South and the West the hardest.

The 2017 report to Congress highlights the lack of affordable housing at a time when President Trump has proposed gutting funding to HUD, which administers federal housing subsidies. 

The agency said that the Trump administration is trying to stimulate the production of affordable housing in other ways. It is also trying to ease pressure on the rental market by trying to restore homeownership through measures such as reducing the government’s role in the private mortgage market.

Ben Carson, Trump’s housing secretary, has also encouraged the private sector to play a greater role in helping to address affordable housing needs.

In response to his agency’s report, Carson issued a statement touting a more “businesslike approach,” including reducing regulatory barriers at the federal, state and local levels to drive down the cost of producing more affordable housing in the private market.

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But affordable housing advocates say the Trump administration’s approach will only make the crisis worse.  

“As it is, there is not enough housing assistance for all the households that are eligible and they are proposing to cut it back even more,” said Andrew Aurand, vice president of research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Only a quarter of very low-income renters receive some form of public housing assistance, according to federal data. The assistance comes in the form of housing vouchers for renting in the private market, subsidized apartments in private developments, and traditional public housing. But the gap between housing subsidies and need widened between 2013 and 2015, the report said. 

“Without housing assistance, what these families can afford to pay in rent is often too low to cover the costs for the private market to serve them,” Aurand said.

The report found that renters living in the South and the West face the lowest likelihood of receiving housing assistance, yet are more likely to be “very low-income” — defined as those earning below half the area average income. HUD for the first time broke out data for select metropolitan areas.

More than 50 percent of very low-income renters in Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Riverside, Calif., fall into the “worst case” category of spending more than half their monthly paychecks on rent, living in substandard conditions, or both.

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All racial and ethnic groups experienced increases in severe housing problems regardless of whether they live in cities, suburbs or rural areas — as did all household types, including families with children, senior citizens and those with disabilities.

Mary Cunningham, co-director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, said the affordable housing shortage will only get worse over the next decade as the number of renters increase, the availability of subsidized housing declines, aging housing stock is converted to higher end homes, and rents continue to rise faster than incomes.

She said even with the Trump administration's goal of reducing regulatory barriers, the private market will not produce enough affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families.

“The math doesn't add up,” Cunningham said. “We have an affordable housing crisis because there is a market failure.”

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