Housing must be a priority

As far as priorities go, housing is pretty far down on the federal government’s wish list, though wish list is probably not the correct way to describe it. Housing money doesn’t even make the list.

That’s the gist of today’s editorial in The New York Times, accurately titled “The Affordable Housing Crisis.” As the paper notes,

The precious few federal programs that provide rental assistance to the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable families are already underfinanced. These programs provide decent housing for about only a quarter of the low-income families who qualify for them. And with nearly nine million households teetering on the verge of homelessness, the country clearly needs more support for affordable housing, not less.

And yet, we are unlikely to see added federal support. As we know from our experience here in New Jersey, subsidized housing can be a non-starter when it is forced to battle for attention with the kinds of programs middle- and upper-class voters tend to appreciate.

The sad truth, however, is that the “number of families eligible” for housing is growing.

Last year, for example, 8.5 million very-low-income families without housing assistance paid more than half their incomes for housing — an increase of 43 percent from 2007.

These families skimp on food and medical care to make the rent and tend to move often, making it difficult for their children to be successful at school. They are also more prone to homelessness, which is traumatic for them and extremely costly for the municipalities that run shelters.

Yet even as the need for affordable housing has grown, such units have disappeared. Over the last two decades, for example, private landlords have removed more than 200,000 apartments from subsidy programs so that they could raise rents. And, faced with weak federal support and no money for repairs, the local housing authorities that manage federally supported developments have boarded up or torn down more than 150,000 units.

According to an analysis by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it would take about $26 billion to repair the public housing developments that shelter more than two million of the nation’s most vulnerable people. The department is currently engaged in a pilot project under which a small subset of public housing authorities will be allowed to leverage private capital to make the needed repairs on their properties.

In New Jersey, an affordable housing program that had been among the most forward-looking in the country is now mired in a series of court challenges and under attack by a hostile governor who already has vetoed an attempt to convert abandoned, foreclosed homes into affordable housing. The legislation has the support not only of housing advocates and builders, but realtors and municipal officials. That makes it rare among affordable housing proposals, which tend to pit towns and housing advocates against each other.

So, while there is an obvious need for more money for housing and a bigger commitment rhetorically and politically, it is not likely to happen anytime soon — at least not without some push from the grassroots.


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