Affordable Housing Crunch for Lowest-Income Renters

March 9, 2017

Another year, another report on how extraordinarily unaffordable housing is for low-income people nationwide and in every state, as well as the would-be state of the District of Columbia.

Affordability Basics

The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s overview of the “housing gap” focuses on rental units that the lowest tier in the official housing policy lexicon could afford and actually move into.

These are extremely low-income households — those whose incomes are at or below 30% of the median for the area they live in. NLIHC includes a sub-tier it introduced several years ago — deeply low-income households, whose incomes are half that.

Housing affordability for both, as generally means costing no more than 30% of income. So, for example, a family with one full-time, year round worker paid the federal minimum wage would have a gross income of $15,080 and thus could afford, at most, $377 a month for rent.

Acute Affordable Rental Shortage

As of 2014, the survey year NLIHC has used, there were roughly 10.4 million ELI households in the country — 24% of all renters. They could hope to rent, at an affordable rate only 3.2 million units. Virtually no affordable units for the DLIs — just about 700,000.

The shortage is surely greater than what NLIHC could report because the Census Bureau survey it uses doesn’t reach homeless people. So what we have instead are households that did rent, but mainly way above what they could afford.

Nearly three-quarters of the ELIs were severely cost-burdened, i.e. spent more than half their income for rent, plus basic utilities. A mere 7% of the DLIs weren’t so cost-burdened — not to say they weren’t cost-burdened at all, however.

Far From Enough Money Left Over for Other Needs

We can readily fathom what the cost burdens mean. Our minimum wage worker family would have, after payroll taxes, no more than $590 a month and change for all other expenses.

Low-income households with, at most, 50% of their income left spent, on average, 38% less for food and 55% less for health care than comparable households without cost burdens, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies reports. Those most likely to face such trade-offs are households with children and seniors well past retirement age.

Not hard to see the long-term health consequences —  and others for those children, e.g., reluctance to form trusting relationships, lags in learning the basic skills schools measure.

These and others put them at higher risk for poverty as adults, perpetuating the cycle of severe cost burdens — or worse.

Many Shortage Drivers

Both NLIHC and the Joint Center cite diverse reasons for the affordable housing shortage, e.g., foreclosures during the recession, a broader preference for renting, developers’ understandable preference for units they can charge much more for.

At the same time, rental units subsidized by Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) project-based vouchers, i.e., those that cover all but 30% of rent, plus basic utilities for specific units, are disappearing far faster than they’re being replaced.

NLIHC cites a nationwide loss of 46,000 such units over the last decade — some demolished, others no longer affordable because the contracts that bound the owners to keep their rents within the limits HUD set expired.

Add to these roughly 150,000 public housing units lost — most, though not all for ELI households. The Joint Center estimates the loss at 10,000 every year.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed federal funding for major repairs and renovations. A study for HUD estimated the total funding need for such capital investments at more than $25.6 billion in 2010.

The total grows annually at roughly $3.4 billion, as costs rise, more units deteriorate and deteriorated units get worse, leading ultimately housing losses, but perhaps in the meantime units egregiously below any reasonable standard.

Since the 2013 across-the board budget cuts, funding for capital investments has remained virtually flat at about $1.9 billion. This isn’t the only reason so many units became so unlivable that public housing authorities closed them. NLIHC cites others, but the bottom line is lost units affordable for ELI and DLI households.

The supply-demand dynamic includes another factor. Higher-income households live in nearly half the units the ELIs could afford. If the ELIs could actually move into those units, the gap would shrink by about 2.6 million.

Now this is only one side of the story, of course. If you’ve got more income, you can afford more for housing. But incomes generally aren’t keeping pace with rent increases — quite the contrary. While rents rose, on average 7% between 2001 and 2014, incomes dropped 9%.

This average includes households that had plenty of money. Those in the bottom fifth, where we’d find the ELIs and DLIs had to cope with losses through at least 2015. Sparse federal housing assistance for them. Only about a quarter of low-income households get any at all.

This is perhaps especially notable because Congress has restored and supplemented the funding needed to offset the cut that caused public housing authorities to withhold or cancel nearly 60,000 unused tenant-based vouchers, i.e., the kind recipients can use to rent at market rates and still pay only 30% of their income.

We’ve got policy remedies, as well as reasons for the gap. But at this point, we can foresee threats to even sustaining current funding levels. More than I can do any justice to here.

But since this is supposed to be a policy-focused blog, I’ll return to them shortly.


Congress Likely to Worsen DC’s Affordable Housing Crisis

February 16, 2017

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute recently hosted a gathering to discuss how the District of Columbia could continue making progress in the face of uncertainty — largely due to the unsettled and unsettling prospects for programs that depend on federal funding.

DCFPI Executive Director Ed Lazere led off his remarks on the self-imposed budget constraints I’ve already blogged on by identifying affordable housing as the District’s number one challenge.

A challenge too for residents, especially the lowest-income households — and one they can’t overcome on their own.

About 26,000 of these households pay more than half their income for rent, as compared to the 30% that’s the general standard for affordability. A large majority pay 80% or more. Hard to imagine how they get by, even with public benefits. And they often find they can’t.

The District has several locally-funded programs that enable some of these lowest-income households — technically, extremely low-income households — to live in units they can afford. It’s tended, however, to give these households short shrift, as the DCFPI report I’ve cited shows.

So the District could make different choices. But it would still have to depend in part on federal funding.

And that, as I’ve already said, is a big uncertainty that the District, like states and other local communities faces now. What I didn’t mention is a further source of uncertainty — the DC Housing Authority’s participation in the Moving to Work pilot program.

Basically, MTW allows participating housing authorities to treat funds for housing vouchers and the two main sources of public housing funding as a block grant.

This means, for example, that they can use funds appropriated for housing vouchers to make repairs and renovations that keep public housing habitable. They can instead defer some public housing work to make up for voucher funding shortfalls, though the data suggest they haven’t.

They may also shift funding appropriated for the type of vouchers that enable recipients to rent at market rates to the type that’s attached to particular units in privately-owned projects. Or vice versa.

So caveats abound as we look at what the District — and its lowest-income residents — seem likely to face when Congress decides, as it eventually must, how much to appropriate for vouchers.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities gives us a starting point. About 11,160 District households had Housing Choice vouchers last year, it says.

These are only the first type of vouchers I mentioned — commonly known as tenant-based because the subsidy goes where the recipient finds a unit to rent.

The appropriations bill the Senate passed would eliminate funding for 139 of these vouchers. A bill that simply extends last year’s funding through the end of this year would leave the District shy funding for nearly 560.

The latter is considerably more vouchers than DCHA customarily awards to other households because those who had them are no longer eligible. What then? I asked DCHA staff and have thus far heard nothing.

I’d like to think, as I’m sure we all would, that we’ll never know — and not because DCHA apparently prefers, at this point, not to put its cards on the table. Nor because its annual MTW reports don’t enable us to trace recent funding shifts.

What we can bet good money on, I think, is that DCHA won’t have more federally-funded vouchers to make a dent in its 41,000 or so households on its still-closed waiting list.

Nor enough to relieve other extremely low-income households that are shy on money for food, transportation, health care, etc. — and one further hit to the budget away from homelessness.

Doesn’t mean that the fate of so many thousands of residents lies solely in the hands of Congress and our mercurial, distracted President.

It does mean, however, that the Mayor and DC Council will have some harder choices to make—and a couple that shouldn’t be hard at all.


How Many More Families Will Have No Affordable Housing?

February 9, 2017

We all, I think, know at least a few things about affordable housing. First, there isn’t enough of it. Second, not everyone who talks about affordable housing means the same thing. Nor do all affordable housing policies aim to help the same type(s) of people.

Third, an effective strategy requires multiple programs, some potentially funded by multiple sources. Which brings us to what we don’t know — impending budget decisions at federal, state and local levels.

Uncertainty at the Source

So far as federal funding’s concerned, we don’t know yet what Congress will do — only that it must do something to avert a government shutdown in late April and that there’s no consensus on what it should do, even among the Republican majority.

Nor, one must always add, what the President will ask it to do. He campaigned on a promise to actively support a repeal of the current ceiling on defense spending — currently $32.5 billion higher than the ceiling on non-defense spending that depends on annual appropriations..

Both the White House and Congress have already done a workaround for defense, but not so as to force a larger cut in non-defense. Trump, however, said he planned to reduce non-defense spending by a penny on the dollar each year, while holding Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid harmless.

That would slash funding for the already shrunken non-defense, discretionary part of the budget by roughly 26% in real dollars over the next nine years. No hint yet how he would parcel out the cuts — or even whether he will now go ahead and try.

Spillover to the States

All but three states must have budgets for the upcoming fiscal year by July 1. So they may or may not have a good fix on what to expect for affordable housing programs. All but one must balance its budget, though laws differ on what that means.

A large majority must end the year with no more spent than received in tax revenues, fees and federal funds, including grants like those for affordable housing programs.

So what may have seemed to balance when a governor signs a budget may turn out not to be — even if some of Trump’s recent and promised actions don’t throw the economy into a recession. As in the past, shortfalls will force unplanned, disruptive cuts.

Impacts at Community Level

Some affordable housing funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development go to states, which then parcel them out. But others that make housing affordable for the lowest-income people go instead directly to local housing authorities or to a designated organization within a network HUD calls a continuum of care.

The latter, however, is only to house particular groups of the lowest-income people — those who’ve been homeless for a long time or recurrently and have at least one disability and others chosen for time-limited subsidized housing.

These funds are iffy, as all HUD’s affordable housing funds are. So we’ve got, at best, a funding range for housing vouchers — the heftiest tool to make housing affordable for the lowest-income people.

These vouchers come in two flavors. One enables people to rent units at market rate by limiting their share to 30% of their income. The other subsidizes rents on certain units in housing projects — a needed support for operating expenses, since tenants are paying only the same limited share of their income.

The voucher programs got whacked by the across-the-board cuts required by the same law that gave us the spending ceilings. Housing authorities held onto vouchers freed up when tenants no longer qualified for them. Some also yanked vouchers from people who’d finally made it to the top of the waiting list.

Additional funds have enabled the agencies to put the withheld vouchers back in use. But merely sustaining them will require more funding because, as we all know, rental rates are rising — in some communities, soaring. Utility rates are rising too, and they’re included in covered costs.

Meanwhile, incomes for the lowest fifths of the scale have, on average, actually shrunk. This is due partly to real-dollar wage losses for the lowest-paid workers and partly to the absent or miniscule cost-of-living adjustments in the social insurance benefits that nearly half the households with vouchers depend on.

So vouchers must pick up a greater share. This means that level-funding won’t cover all vouchers in use. A year-long continuing resolution would cause a nationwide loss of roughly 108,500 vouchers, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates.

The bill that the Senate has already passed would bump up funding for both the so-called tenant-based vouchers and those attached to units in housing projects. The House bill, which still awaits an all-member vote, would also increase both, but give give less to the former.

If both chambers agree to go with the Senate bill (big if), housing authorities would still be shy about 26,575 vouchers. No way that state and local investments in affordable housing development can produce that many more units within six or so months.

Nor can the states and cities that use their own revenues to fund vouchers plow that much more into their programs. In fact, some of the affordable units they now have may disappear because the contracts with project owners are time-limited.

But the people who need those vouchers will still be homeless or potentially so because they’re paying at least half their income for rent. So what state and local budgets lose in federal funding for vouchers, will drive up needs for other resources.

These include, obviously, homeless services, including shelters. Don’t look to the federal government to supply what’s needed. Neither the House nor Senate bill would provide even a quarter of a million more for homeless assistance grants.

Other budget pressures are many and various. For example, more children will come within the purview of child welfare agencies because they’ll be living in homes unsafe for them due to domestic violence, unintended, but still harmful neglect and/or egregiously unhealthful physical conditions.

Healthcare costs themselves will rise. Schools will face needs for more remedial education and other services to compensate for the effects of hunger, parental stress and just plain moving around from place to place because their parents or other caregivers can’t afford rent.

So that’s a bird’s-eye view of the uncertainties — and partial certainties — that state and local policymakers and the people they were elected to serve face now. Members of Congress were elected to serve them too. But you’d be hard put to see that in the agendas the majority leaders have put front and center.


No Government Shutdown Isn’t Good Enough

October 13, 2016

As I’m sure you know, the federal government doesn’t have a budget for this fiscal year. Congress narrowly averted a shutdown with a continuing resolution. So programs that depend on annual spending choices can keep operating at their current funding levels until December 10.

Then what? Well, the government almost surely won’t have a new budget to replace the CR. Nothing unusual about this. Congress has relied on at least one CR in all but four budget seasons since 1977.

Speaker Paul Ryan said the House would return to “regular order” under his leadership, i.e., pass each of the dozen appropriations bills that make up the budget. So did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But they’re not even close. The Senate has passed only three appropriations bills and the House five. They haven’t negotiated final versions of any, though one got folded into the CR.

So we’re likely to have another — either that or a package containing some newly-passed appropriations bills and an extension of current funding levels for the rest.

One way or the other we’re unlikely to have a government shutdown. So why should we care whether we’ve got a bona fide budget or not?

We shouldn’t, I think, care much if Congress decides to punt again — and only once more. But a longer-term CR would leave critical programs under-funded, including some especially important for low-income people.

Consider affordable housing. The Housing Choice voucher program needs more funding annually merely to sustain the number of vouchers in current use because, as you’ve probably noticed, rents rise — and with them, the amount the vouchers must usually cover.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development needs roughly $765 million more for that, according to the President’s proposed budget. A somewhat similar program administered by the Agriculture Department needs an additional 18 million.

And steady state isn’t good enough. Fewer than one in four low-income households that qualify for housing assistance have it. Three quarters of those who don’t pay at least half their income for rent.

And, of course, some can’t. We don’t know yet how many people nationwide the latest homeless counts found. But we do know that last year’s identified about 564,700, including nearly 127,790 children who were with parents or other caregivers.

Yet the current budget is still shy about 59,000 vouchers left unfunded by the across-the-board cuts the Budget Control Act required and choices Congress made to comply with its (modified) spending caps.

These are indefinite-term vouchers. HUD’s homeless assistance grants fund, among other things, the time-limited vouchers local agencies provide through their rapid re-housing programs.

They also help fund permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people — not necessarily permanent, but subsidized for as long as occupants need it.

As with other types of housing, per-unit costs steadily rise. Just renewing current contracts would cost roughly $2 billion, HUD estimates.

This is barely less than the total current funding level for homeless assistance grants, which also help cover costs of shelters, diverse services and short-shot aid to prevent homelessness. Costs for these rise too.

A long-term CR would obviously tighten the squeeze — and so put progress toward ending homelessness even further behind what’s needed to achieve the goals that federal agencies collectively set in 2010.  Likewise the goals that local communities have embraced, including the District of Columbia.

All such efforts require ramped-up investments in housing that poor and near-poor people can afford, as well as the subsidies and services funded in part through HUD’s homeless assistance grants.

The federal partner would need to do considerably more than the majorities in Congress seem inclined to. Both the House and Senate have, however, passed bills that would provide somewhat more funding for both regular housing vouchers and homeless assistance.

But not identical bills. So even slight increases might not reach state and local agencies — and if not them, then not the people who are homeless or paying so much for rent that they’re short on money for food, medical care, shoes for the kids, etc.

These slices of the HUD budget are, of course, only examples of what prolonged level funding would mean.

CLASP cites several others. These would further limit job prospects for youth and older adults who lack the education and skills our labor market demands — and for affordable, high-quality child care.

Experts in other areas could undoubtedly name a host of others that a long-term CR would significantly shortchange. Not only low-income people would suffer, but they’d get hit from more directions.