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President's Message: Housing is a 2020 Platform Issue, but Something's Still Missing

By Priya Jayachandran

As the 2020 election season heats up, it’s gratifying to see affordable housing finally gain the attention it deserves. For the first time since I came of political age, 11 of the major candidates have platforms that address housing affordability. While the attention is welcome, there’s room for improvement and at the National Housing Trust we’re focused on how we can help.  What’s missing is a bold new investment in affordable housing – investments in a new subsidy program and in energy efficient and sustainable affordable housing. 

The national recognition is bittersweet: arguably underlying the attention is the fact that that the housing crisis has become so severe that voters and residents have reached a tipping point. According to Harvard’s Joint Center on Housing Studies’ The State of the Nation’s Housing 2019 report, rental housing unaffordability continues to be near peak levels. Over 11 million Americans spend more than 50% of their income on rent and over 20 million spend more than 30%. At the same time the affordable housing stock has shrunk by four million units since 2011. The trend is unsustainable. 

Three of the Democratic candidates who are also US Senators have introduced major housing bills, all of which are sophisticated and, for the most part, informed. The proposals so far have focused on low cost or credit proposals such as zoning deregulation and additional tax credits. Clearly there is a shortage of supply and local restrictive policies have contributed to low-growth mandates and environments. Updated land policy incentives are certainly a tool that should be part of any housing proposal.  So are tax credits. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit revolutionized the creation and preservation of affordable housing and it needs to be expanded to keep pace with population growth, widening income disparity and loss of affordable stock.  It makes sense to include tax credit expansion. 

We often forget that project-based Section 8 was terminated in 1983 and the program that exists today is largely renewing contracts that were awarded before then.  The Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), while innovative, does not create new subsidized housing; it converts from one subsidy program, Public Housing, to another

Where is the new subsidy program for the 21st century?  We kid ourselves and our elected officials that any solution can be achieved at low or no-cost. All of our national priorities cost money and are subsidized. Affordable housing is a national priority and demands major investment. For over 30 years, National Housing Trust has been the lead voice for Section 8 and it’s our role and responsibility to highlight the need to build on the program’s successes (and shortcomings) in any new housing framework.

The other area missing from most current proposals is energy sustainability.  Ten years ago, we were jolted by data showing how much families with fewer resources spend on utilities.  Historically we had focused almost exclusively on rent. Utilities comprise a large share of many families’ monthly cash expenditure; levels do not vary widely among families and it effectively acts as a regressive tax. The good news is that it’s one of the most changeable and NHT has devoted a significant portion of our work to driving down utility costs through energy efficiency and renewable energy.  Both investments offer triple bottom lines:  lower operating costs, healthier living conditions, and lower carbon footprints. Investing in greater incentives for housing owners to embrace energy efficiency and renewable energy can free up resources that help create and preserve the new units we need.

Over the coming months, look for NHT to bring our experience and expertise to the national housing conversation.