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Editorial: Build more affordable rentals into housing mix

March 22, 2012  |  
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The Housing Act of 1949 set national goals that included "a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family."

In struggling to reach those goals, U.S. policies have focused largely -- sometimes almost exclusively -- on home ownership, much of it in the suburbs and exurbs that mushroomed after World War II.

The recent mortgage foreclosure crisis kept U.S. housing policies centered on home ownership, even as it began to shake America's unquestioning faith in ownership as the only suitable housing option, or a foolproof way to build wealth. Increasing numbers of poor families and elderly people cannot afford single-family homes of their own. Meanwhile, a new generation of young professionals -- and older empty-nesters -- want to live in dense, diverse and walkable neighborhoods, especially in urban and downtown rental markets.

"We need a more balanced housing policy," Shaun Donovan, director of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, told the Free Press editorial board earlier this month.

Roughly two-thirds of U.S. adults still own their own homes; outside of New York City, where two-thirds of residents rent, home ownership will continue to drive the U.S. housing market. Even so, the rental share of the housing market is growing, even as rentals become increasingly expensive, said Denise Notice-Scott, managing director of Local Initiatives Support Corp. in New York City.

LISC, the nation's largest community development support organization with 29 local sites, has helped build hundreds of thousands of affordable housing units, focusing on projects that give residents access to transportation, jobs, education and other needs.

More than half of low-income tenants pay more than 50% of their income for rent, challenging the nation to preserve and expand affordable rental units. From 2000-06, the number of families with housing costs exceeding 50% of their income increased by 2 million, or 34%, while the nation lost thousands of units of subsidized housing

"We have to stop losing affordable housing," Notice-Scott said.

One way to do that is to expand federal low-income housing tax credits and fully fund federal housing subsidy programs like HOME, which was cut by 38% this year, and Section 8.

On FreepOpinion.com: An interview with Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee about the spike in homicides and why prescription painkillers are causing Detroiters a lot of pain.

To qualify for federal low-income housing tax credits, developers must rent to low- and moderate-income tenants. The developers, many of them nonprofits like Southwest Housing Solutions in Detroit, raise revenue to pay for projects by selling credits to investors, who use them as tax breaks. These are effective programs that also create thousands of good-paying construction jobs.

Before President Barack Obama took office, the U.S. had lost an estimated 350,000 of its 2 million units of subsidized housing over the previous decade. They either deteriorated or owners converted them to market-rate housing. Federal housing assistance programs serve only about one in four of eligible low-income families.

Under Donovan, HUD has improved occupancy rates, putting more than 100,000 families into vacant public housing. HUD has also rebuilt some deteriorating housing stock, but Congress must do more to preserve it, as well as authorize HUD to use innovative public-private partnerships to raise money.

Fulfilling a decades-old promise to make adequate housing a right and reality for all will take a more balanced housing policy -- one that meets the needs of the growing market for affordable rentals, as well as for home ownership.

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