NHC’s release of Housing Landscape 2015 this week throws into sharp relief the housing challenges so many people in America face. Some problems are steady over time, like the roughly one quarter of working renters who spend more than half of their income on housing. Others vary more based on economic conditions. The pressure of spending too much on housing hits renters and owners across this country at many income levels, and the effects are most intense for people with the least means. There isn’t a single policy answer, but rather several dimensions to pursue.
1. Help pay the rent. At a very basic level, rental assistance is simply necessary to bridge the gap between what extremely low-income households can pay and what it costs to provide stable housing. Federal resources are essential here, although they have been shrinking relative to the need. Mobile vouchers, property-based assistance, public housing and other sources go directly and immediately to serve need. Federal appropriations should reflect that need.
In the medium- to long-term, however, we need to make housing cost less. If all we do is chase rising housing costs with shrinking federal funds, we will lose the race. In parallel to meeting immediate need, we need to:
2. Lower the cost of housing in places where people want to live. That second part is important: housing gets too expensive, especially near jobs, good schools, health care and the transportation that gets people to those destinations. Here’s where state and local land use decisions are so critical, as well as the federal policies that shape those decisions. We need to empower states, cities, towns and counties to lower barriers to development, preserve the investments already made in housing and create opportunities near where people already live.
But the patterns of where we already live are shaped by a long and complicated history. As the Housing Landscapedata shows, the problem of unaffordable housing falls disproportionately on people of color. Unless we engage directly with this disparity, we will not fundamentally solve our nation’s housing challenges. So, we should:
3. Address the racial disparities in housing opportunity. This isn’t easy and we don’t know all the answers. Housing is an essential nexus of economic, educational, health and other opportunity. Where people live affects what they have access to, so we need to focus local, state and federal efforts on bringing more opportunity to communities that have seen in some cases decades of disinvestment, and create pathways to places of new opportunity for those who want to follow them.
Only with simultaneous action for immediate, medium-term and long-term challenges will we solve our country’s housing challenges.