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Low-income housing advocates see threats ahead

Housing advocates, including some mortgage trade groups, have called attention to an emerging crisis in the cost of rents and the lack of affordable-housing units in the United States. Diane Yentel, president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), spoke to Scotsman Guide News about the state of affordable housing and why she expects that advocates will have to battle hard over the next two years to defend programs aimed at helping the poorest renters. 

What is your view of the state of affordable housing right now?

YentelAt the National Low Income Housing Coalition, we focus primarily on extremely low-income households and solutions for affordable housing for them. There is an absolute shortage of homes, affordable and available, to them. Our research quantifies the shortage at 7.2 million units. In other words, there is a shortage of 7.2 million rental units that are affordable and available to the lowest-income people. A historic level of low-income renters are paying more than half of their income towards rent each month. There are about 8 million extremely low renters in that situation today. This means that they end up making real sacrifices on their basic necessities with very little income left over for food, for health care, to save. This leaves them one financial emergency away  from homelessness.

Is this a widespread problem?

It is absolutely widespread. We find that the lack of affordable housing is pervasive. It impacts every state in most communities throughout the country — rural, urban, suburban. Nationally, for every 100 extremely low-income households, there are just 31 rental units that are affordable and available to them. That number varies throughout the country, from just 21 units for every 100 families in California to 64 units for every 100 families in North Dakota, but in every state there is a shortage.

Is there any critical need that stands out?

In some places, what is most needed is supply, that we actually build or preserve rental units for the lowest-income people. In other places, the supply is adequate, but the people who are in rental homes can’t afford them. What is most needed [in these locations] is a type of rental assistance, like the Section 8 voucher program.

There has been some anxiety among advocates about the Trump administration’s commitment to affordable housing. Do you perceive any threats?

We face a very challenging budget outlook for housing and community-development programs. Partly, that was going to be case regardless of the outcome of the election. That’s because we remain under very tight budget caps that were enacted through the Budget Control Act [a 2011 law that established federal spending caps through 2021].

There is no doubt that the election’s outcome and the Trump administration’s spending priorities make it an even more challenging budget year. Since the Budget Control Act was enacted, Congress twice gave itself relief from its tight spending caps. Each time, in the negotiations, President Obama insisted on parity; in other words, any increase in spending on the defense side of the budget had to be met with equal increases on the nondefense side. Now, in 2017, we’re back to these very tight budget caps, and President Trump has said he wants to do just the opposite in negotiations. He wants to significantly increase defense spending, and he wants to pay for it through cuts to all other discretionary, nondefense spending, including housing and community-development programs.

In addition, Trump has said he wants to implement what he calls "a penny plan" to cut all nondefense spending by 1 percent each year. We add to that the possibility of supplemental spending requests for the proposed border wall or further increases to the defense spending. We’ll have to work very hard to ensure the highest possible funding levels for these critical housing programs for some of the country’s most vulnerable people.

Given this challenging environment, what can be achieved over the next couple of years that would help the cause of affordable housing?

There are a few. The first thing we need to do is ensure that we do not cut back critical affordable-housing programs, like through HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] or USDA [the U.S. Department of Agriculture], or like the low-income housing tax-credit program through the Department of Treasury. These are all very critical housing programs for very vulnerable people, but it is not enough. We have to increase investments in some of these key solutions, and we have to target resources towards those with the greatest needs, which are the extremely low-income renters.

We spend about $200 billion a year to help Americans buy or rent their homes, but three quarters of those subsidies go to help higher-income homeowners through programs like the mortgage-interest deduction and other homeownership tax benefits.

Only a quarter of the subsidies are left to help the lowest-income renters, those with the greatest needs. For many years now, we have proposed reforming the mortgage-interest deduction in a way that makes it more helpful to low-income homeowners, who currently don’t get any tax benefit for having a mortgage and to realize really significant savings — about $240 billion over 10 years — to be reinvested into affordable rental-housing solutions.

One thing that is certain coming out of the elections is that comprehensive tax reform is a top priority for the administration and for Republicans in Congress. Unlike in previous years, where the mortgage-interest deduction was seen as a third-rail, untouchable program, there are key policy makers that are actively considering reform to the mortgage-interest deduction. We have an important opportunity now to ensure that any savings that comes from changes to the mortgage-interest deduction are reinvested into affordable-housing rental solutions.

Given the current turmoil in Washington, do you think that affordable-housing issues will be heard?

There is certainly a lot happening. There is a lot of defensive work that has to happen among advocates and stakeholders across all the safety-net programs. We are at a moment now where, as a society, we are recognizing more that housing is really central to solving many of the other social issues that we have looked to solve through the health care system or the education system, or other anti-poverty work. With that recognition, we may be able to broaden our messaging and broaden our coalitions, or reach, to really raise this level up to be heard.


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