Long-Term Rental Trends Call For More, Not Less Government Action

The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies reports that, in 2009, more than a fifth of all households in the District paid upwards of 50% of their income for rent and basic utilities. Fewer than 16% were so severely housing-cost burdened at the turn of the century.

The recession, of course, accounts for part of the increase. As the Center observes, though not for the District specifically, rising unemployment rates and falling real incomes caused the largest upswing in severely cost-burdened renters in decades.

But this is only the latest phase in an ongoing trend. Long before the recession set in, renters were crunched by a combination of little or no real income growth and an ongoing loss of affordable housing stock.

Between 1999 and 2009, nearly 12% of the country’s low-cost rental units disappeared. At the same time, most new construction was for the high-end of the market. In 2009, recession notwithstanding, a third of all new apartments rented for $1,250 a month or more.

One factor here has been the federal government’s anemic support for affordable housing.

Funding for new public housing development has given way to other, market-based alternatives — not in itself a bad thing. But the alternatives have not served the interests of low-income renters.

Best known of the alternatives is what’s now called the housing choice voucher program — subsidy guarantees that low-income households can use to help pay market-based rents.

As the Center says, growth in the voucher program stalled in the mid-2000s. For at least two years, it’s gotten just slightly more than the minimum needed to renew all vouchers in current use.

Meanwhile, under the Hope VI program, federal funds have supported the conversion of public to mixed-use housing, with less than one-for-one replacements of low-cost units.

At the same time, long-term contracts that subsidized low-cost privately-owned units have expired. Additional units have been lost because owners didn’t attend to basic maintenance.

Put all this together and it’s hardly surprising that about three-quarters of the nation’s low-income renters “are left to compete for an ever-dwindling supply of low-cost unassisted rentals.”

Nor surprising that a large majority “have little left to pay for other basic necessities such as food, clothing and healthcare.”

As Pete Witte at the National Alliance to End Homelessness adds, these households are at high risk of homelessness. One extraordinary event — the car dies, the kid breaks an arm — and there goes what’s been squirreled away for rent.

Yet, as the Center notes, “the growing need for affordable housing confronts the stark realities of federal budgetary constraints.”

This, I think, would be true even if Congress doesn’t adopt the portion of the House budget plan that would roll back federal spending on assisted housing — or its inflexible cap on all non-security spending not mandated by other laws.

True even if Congress also rejects the more extreme spending cap proposed by Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Bob Corker (R-TN) and the even more radical proposals to add a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

All levels of government, the Harvard Center says, will have to “foster an environment that supports efforts by the private sector to help meet the nation’s need for affordable, good quality rental housing.”

But here in the District, Mayor Gray wants to raid the Housing Production Trust Fund — a key source of funding that has enabled both nonprofit and for-profit developers to leverage private financing for affordable housing development and preservation.

Seems it’s going to be up to the DC Council to foster that supportive environment. Anyone who looks to the top level of government to do its share is living in a fool’s paradise.

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One Response to Long-Term Rental Trends Call For More, Not Less Government Action

  1. [...] for various reasons, publicly-subsidized low-cost units are going-going-gone — 150,000 lost in the last 15 years, [...]

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