Begun in the 1930s, federal programs for insuring home mortgages, for building public housing and for subsidizing privately developed low- and moderate-income housing had continued and expanded after World War II. Millions of Americans were housed, although people of color were routinely denied equal access.
From 1969 to 1980, my firm designed a number of affordable, equal-opportunity housing projects, sponsored by nonprofit or for-profit development entities, and financed with low-interest loans or direct grants under various federal subsidy programs administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, better known as HUD. State, county and municipal programs also helped fund affordable, fair housing projects.
Regrettably, with the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, federal housing finance programs came to an abrupt halt or were greatly curtailed. In fact, Reagan sought to eliminate HUD. His effort, although unsuccessful, was understandable. The distressed physical and social conditions of America’s public housing were increasingly visible. Likewise, many nonpublic, subsidized housing projects were poorly maintained and plagued with similar problems.
Since the 1980s, housing policy and public support have slipped to the bottom of political and fiscal agendas. Much less subsidized housing has been developed. And almost no public housing has been built. Indeed, much mid-20th century public housing has been demolished.
Very different housing problems confront America in 2021. Elevated housing demand, income disparity and gentrification have driven up prices for renting apartments and owning homes in many city and suburban locations. Housing production costs — land, financing, construction — keep going up, exacerbated by building material shortages and supply chain disruptions. And subsidy sources essential for affordable housing and rental assistance remain scarce.
Yet these economic challenges are symptoms of something more fundamental and blame-worthy: citizen indifference about housing the less affluent. Clearly, attitudes about affordability diverge greatly from mid-20th century.
Today’s citizens and elected officials often claim to be public-spirited and say they care about the plight of those less fortunate. Many profess concern about the welfare of the community as a whole. But they do not act meaningfully on their concern, and frequently they oppose the actions of those who do act.
What specific actions are needed?
● Making affordable housing a national, state and local policy goal, as it was after WWII and before the 1980s, including enacting more substantial finance and rental subsidy programs to significantly expand housing opportunities;
● Providing sufficient financial incentives to motivate much more private sector investment in and development of affordable housing;
● Amending long-standing zoning laws to allow increased residential density and more diverse dwelling types in urban and suburban locations across metropolitan areas;
● Eliminating other counterproductive and marginally justifiable regulatory constraints that unnecessarily increase residential real estate development costs and prices.
These actions will expand affordable housing inventory. Many more facilities, such as single-room occupancy buildings, could be developed to house individuals and families otherwise forced to live on the street.
All these actions necessitate a nationwide change of heart. And all require political and fiscal support, in particular willingness to pay for undertaking such actions through increased taxation.
Of course, increasing taxation and spending is why people strongly oppose undertaking needed actions. Equally strong is persistent opposition to proposed changes believed to have negative social and economic effects.
Residential density increases top the list of such negative changes in the view of “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard) property owners. They assert that allowing accessory dwelling units — in attics, basements, garages, backyards — or erecting multifamily structures in an area zoned only for single-family homes threatens the socioeconomic well-being and stability of established neighborhoods.
Although enabling increased density would help somewhat, in fact higher density is by no means the key strategy for augmenting the supply of affordable housing. Likewise, regulatory reform, while needed, will not unleash a torrent of dwelling development.
In reality, successfully addressing housing challenges depends mostly on reducing indifference and transforming citizen attitudes and beliefs. Only then will elected officials think and act differently, embrace more ambitious fiscal policies and programs, and ask people and corporations to pay additional taxes to help house all Americans.
Roger K. Lewis is a retired practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.