WHAT CAN BE DONE?
America needs more and better homes at rents people can afford. The current shortage is extreme, and the gap between available homes and those who need them is widening fast. But the solution is not simply to build more homes and hope the market takes care of the problem. Instead, creative policies and strategies are needed to support the creation of more housing designed specifically to create opportunities for lower-income households.
Almost 90 percent of all affordable rental homes built in the U.S. since the 1980s were created thanks to tax credits made available to developers, giving them incentives and support for building “income-qualified” rentals–homes set aside for those with limited incomes. These tax credits have proven to be the most efficient way to create new affordable homes and to rehabilitate the existing housing stock. Encouraging developers in this way can also bring jobs and new resources to neighborhoods that need them.
But funding for these tax credits doesn’t even come close to meeting the need. The majority of proposals for such projects cannot be green-lighted due to a lack of available funding. In addition to increased funding, incentives must be designed to make it financially feasible for developers to build in under-served areas, and to price rentals at levels that make sense for the lowest-income families.
At the same time, a major issue tied to the housing crisis is the persistence of income-segregated neighborhoods. Long-standing patterns of residential segregation need to be addressed. Some research has found that location and neighborhood condition may have an even bigger impact on people’s health than the actual home itself does. One innovative program that gave low-income families housing vouchers that could only be used in better-off (“low poverty”) neighborhoods found that adult obesity fell by 11 percent, and rates of depression, anxiety, smoking, and drug use also fell significantly. That’s an example of why bringing income-qualified homes to a wider range of neighborhoods is essential.
And the importance of location goes beyond simply avoiding so-called “bad neighborhoods” where crime is high and schools are struggling to meet tremendous, complex student needs. It’s also an issue of job availability. A report from the Center for Housing Policy found that when people’s homes were more than 12 miles away from employment centers, the cost of transportation began to outweigh savings on rent for low to moderate-income households.
Housing policies must encourage the creation of affordable housing in “centers of economic activity”–that is, places where there are jobs. Other possible approaches include ensuring that local zoning laws require setting aside a certain number of apartments in new buildings for specific occupations, such as teachers, fire fighters or child care workers. Land-use restrictions should also be addressed to make it easier to create new affordable rental homes in all types of areas that need them, including rural areas.
Lastly, people who need help with housing costs need to have resources to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. In the current landscape, especially in big cities, winning a spot in an affordably-priced building feels to most renters about as realistic as hitting the jackpot for Powerball–in other words, like a fantasy. Affordable housing can become a reality for more Americans, but only with greater public understanding of the crisis and widespread support for more funding.