Amidst the partisan rancor in Washington, there is one issue that should unite both political parties: the urgent need to expand access to affordable rental housing.
The situation is dire. According to new research by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, more than 11 million households in communities across America now spend in excess of 50% of their income just on rent. That’s an unsustainable proposition for millions of low-income families who are often forced to choose between paying the rent and purchasing groceries or critical medical care. Many are just one missed rent payment away from eviction and homelessness.
What’s the cause of today’s high rent burdens? Over the past decade, we have witnessed an unprecedented increase in demand for rental housing that has sent rents soaring. Unfortunately, household incomes have not kept pace. Exacerbating the situation is the severe shortage of rental homes that are affordable and available to the lowest-income families. This shortfall now stands at 7.4 million units, affecting every state and metropolitan area
Millions of low-income families rely on federal rental assistance, but these programs help just one out of every four eligible households. In many communities, housing vouchers are allocated through long waiting lists or by lottery.
For some, it may be easy to dismiss these concerns. But make no mistake: housing is a fundamental aspect of all our lives. Our homes, of course, provide necessary shelter but they also serve as the gateway to our communities and society at large. Children living in stable, affordable homes generally perform better at school and are healthier than those who lack this foundation. A growing body of research is also showing that restrictive land use policies and high housing costs hinder mobility and stymie economic growth.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Matthew Desmond explains: “Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”
The good news is that many of the solutions to the rental affordability crisis already enjoy broad bipartisan support.
Republican and Democratic members of Congress recently joined together to introduce legislation that would strengthen the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, the nation’s most effective program to increase the supply of affordable rental homes. There’s no better time than now to pass this important legislation, which would help attract much-needed private investment in affordable housing.
The 1.1 million units in the Public Housing program are a critical source of affordable rental homes, but many of these units are in serious need of repair after years of disinvestment. Responding to this problem, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program allows public housing authorities to leverage existing rental subsidies to attract private capital to support revitalization within Public Housing. The results so far are promising. However, the number of units that can convert to RAD is today capped at 185,000. Voices on both sides of the aisle are now calling for the cap to be raised or lifted entirely.
There is broad recognition that federal, state, and local regulatory policies can act as artificial barriers to affordable housing, either by raising construction costs, limiting affordable rental production, or preventing production altogether. More than 25 years ago, former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp called upon the nation to remove these barriers so that lower-income families can fully enjoy the opportunities our country affords. Last year, former President Barack Obama made a similar plea and released a toolkit for states and cities seeking to expand access to affordable housing. What’s needed now is inspired leadership to make regulatory-barrier reduction a truly national goal.
Republicans and Democrats have come to appreciate the effectiveness of “housing-first” strategies that prioritize permanent housing for those experiencing homelessness. The result has been significant declines in homelessness among families and veterans. Building on this approach, the Bipartisan Policy Center Housing Commission recommended the provision of short-term emergency rental assistance to those low-income families who have suffered a major setback (such as a job loss or a major medical crisis) that could lead to eviction. The goal of this assistance would be to keep families in their homes, help them get stabilized, and prevent homelessness.
When it comes to responding to the rental affordability crisis, what is most striking are not the differences that divide the political parties but the common ground that unites them. The solutions to the crisis are hiding in plain sight. It is now time to act on them without delay.