What Do We Mean By Affordable Housing?

June 1, 2009

It’s come to me that my recent posting on President Obama’s affordable housing budget skirted the heart of the issue: What do we mean by affordable housing?

When I talk about affordable housing I generally mean housing that’s affordable for poor people. These are the people that federal housing programs classify as “extremely low-income”–those with household incomes at or below 30% of area median income.

But there are also “very low-income” households–those with incomes at or below 50% of the AMI. And then there are just plain low-income households, whose incomes can be as high as 80% of AMI.

There’s obviously a wide spread here. To illustrate, in the District of Columbia, an extremely low-income family of three has an annual income not exceeding $27,700. The maximum for a low-income family of three is more than twice that–$57,600.

Affordable housing programs can be exclusively for extremely and very low-income people. Housing Choice vouchers, for example, are only for them, and 75% of the vouchers must go to the former.

But affordable housing programs also extend to just plain low-income people. For example, homeownership assistance under HOME Investment Partnerships grants is available to anyone with an income no greater than 80% of AMI.

And then there are programs folded into the dialogue that are intended to make home ownership more affordable for moderate, as well as low-income households–FHA home loans, for example.

So it’s easy to see that policymakers and advocates can be talking at cross purposes. We’re all for affordable housing. But affordable for whom?

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has addressed this issue by spearheading an open letter to Congress and the Administration. “What we mean by housing,” it says, “is enough homes renting at affordable rates so that our nation’s lowest income families and individuals are assured of safe and decent places to live.”

That will require funding commitments that are not in the Fiscal Year 2010 budget. But I think I understand how the Administration can claim leadership on affordable housing anyway.


HEARTH Act Goes to the President for Signature

May 20, 2009

Yesterday both the House and Senate passed the final version of the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act. This version includes the controversial HEARTH (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act. The legislation has been sent to the President, who’s expected to sign it later today.

As those of you who’ve been following this blog know, I and many other advocates have serious concerns about the HEARTH Act–particularly its definition of homeless persons who will be eligible for assistance.

The definition is better than the one it replaces, but it will still exclude numerous homeless individuals and families. The legislation will also preserve, virtually intact, the old, even more restrictive definition used for the annual homeless counts.

I seriously doubt that Congress will want to revisit the issues any time soon. But that doesn’t mean we should give up. We need to keep building the case for expanding the eligibility criteria. We also, I think, need to try to form a broader coalition so that, next time round, all the major advocacy organizations are speaking with a single voice.

HEARTH Act Moves Forward – With Defects Intact

May 8, 2009

On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously passed the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act. Sounds like good news, doesn’t it?

Up to a point, it is. The legislation would make various changes in existing law–maybe not the best, but still pretty good–that would help prevent foreclosures, enhance mortgage credit availability and strengthen protections against mortgage fraud.

But the Senate folded the HEARTH Act into the legislation. As I and many others have said before, the HEARTH Act has serious defects.

  • The definition of “homeless” in the Act would perpetuate the exclusion of large groups of homeless individuals and families.
  • The Act would severely restrict the use of federal funds to help individuals and families newly recognized as homeless.
  • It would allow communities to continue ignoring most of these newly-recognized homeless people–and all those still not officially recognized–in their annual homeless counts.

The National Coalition for the Homeless has raised additional concerns about community decision-making,  flexibility and privacy.

The version of the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act that passed in the House doesn’t include the HEARTH Act. So whether it’s in or out of the final bill will be subject to House-Senate negotiations.

Stay tuned …

Getting Homeless Children Counted

February 2, 2009

I recently wrote about how the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of “homeless” excludes large groups of homeless individuals and families from the annual homeless count.

A comment from Joni called attention to another excluded group–“couch surfers,” i.e., young people who are on their own and moving from one friend or relative’s home to another. Thanks again, Joni!

Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL) has introduced a bill that would expand the definition of “homeless” to include not only “couch surfers,” but many other children and youth who are homeless but not counted now. It’s the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2009 (H.R. 29).

H.R. 29 would amend the current general definition of “homeless individual” in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to include children and youth who are verified as homeless by administrators of any one of four federally-funded programs.

Basically, children would still count as homeless if they were in emergency shelters, transitional housing or places not meant from human habitation, e.g., cars, abandoned buildings, bus or train stations.

But they would also count if they were:

  • Sharing the housing of someone else because they’d lost their home
  • Living in a motel, hotel, trailer park or camping ground “due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations”
  • On their own, in any of these situations, because they’d run away from home or been thrown out
  • Abandoned in a hospital
  • Awaiting foster care placement

This worthy bill currently has four co-sponsors. It will need a lot more to get on the agendas of the committees it’s been referred to, let alone a vote on the House floor.

HEAR US has launched a grassroots campaign to gain co-sponsors. Its blog has a downloadable, attention-grabbing form we can fax to our Representatives.

We can also call or send them an e-mail. Contact information (both phone and fax numbers) and e-mail forms are on their websites. Sites can be easily accessed from the home page of the House site.