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Senators introduce bill to address affordable rural housing shortage

The bill would "improve and build upon a number of U.S. Department of Agriculture rural housing programs"

Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) introduced this week new legislation that aims to address a shortage of affordable housing in rural communities. The lawmakers say the bill would represent “the most significant Rural Housing Service reforms [in] years.”

If passed, the bill, known as Rural Housing Service Reform Act of 2023, would “improve federal rural housing programs, cut red tape, and strengthen the supply of affordable housing” and would “improve and build upon a number of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rural housing programs,” according to a press release from Sen. Smith’s office about the bill.

“This legislation makes important improvements and updates to the Rural Housing Service that will create and preserve affordable housing opportunities in South Dakota,” said Sen. Rounds. “As we face an affordable housing crisis across the nation, I look forward to working with my colleagues to get these important, bipartisan updates signed into law.”

In particular, the bill aims to fix what the senators describe as a “longstanding problem for [515] properties that were financed by the USDA decades ago and now have maturing mortgages, by making it easier for non-profits to acquire those properties and by decoupling rental assistance so that assistance doesn’t disappear when those mortgages mature.”

Otherwise known as “rural renting housing loans,” USDA Section 515 loans are “direct, competitive mortgage loans made to provide affordable multifamily rental housing for very low-, low-, and moderate-income families, elderly persons, and persons with disabilities.”

The bill would make it easier for non-profits to acquire properties with Section 515 loans. It would also decouple the related rental assistance so that the assistance doesn’t disappear when the mortgages mature.

In addition, the bill would make permanent a USDA pilot program that provides mortgages to Native American communities through partnerships with community development financial institutions (CDFIs).

Technology is also a focus of the bill. In addition to the other priorities, the bill would allow the USDA to make better investments in its information technology infrastructure. The senators contend that this would allow the USDA to “process loans more quickly and with less staff time wasted on paperwork or manual data entry.”

Another area of focus are the USDA’s methods of measuring incomes, which are “outdated,” according to language in the bill. If passed, the bill bring those methods in line with the way incomes are measured by HUD.

The bill would also “modernize” the USDA’s foreclosure practices to better ensure affordability, the senators said.

Smith and Rounds have been heavily focused on affordable rural housing issues recently, with both senators spearheading hearings on the topic in order to develop a plan.

“Without a safe, affordable place to live, nothing else in your life works. Not your job, not your education, not your health,” Sen. Smith said in a statement. “We know that the housing crisis is hurting communities across the country, and the problem is particularly acute in rural places. This legislation is the direct result of bipartisan hearings and conversations with stakeholders who helped identify ways we can make federal rural housing programs work better for people struggling to find a safe, affordable place to live.”

Natalie Maxwell, managing attorney for the National Housing Law Project, recently told The Hill that approximately 560,000 renters who live in apartments financed by Section 515 are under threat due to the mortgages maturing or due to a loss of eligibility related to other reasons.

“In rural communities, the Section 515 program has been a critical source of affordable housing especially for low-income seniors and people with disabilities,” Maxwell told The Hill. “Congress can and must do more to preserve these properties for families living in poverty.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has also turned its attention toward the needs of rural areas recently, including through proposals that seek to expand broadband internet access to a greater number of rural communities.

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