If We're Serious About Tackling Poverty, Let's Talk About Housing

The rising cost of housing in U.S. cities like San Francisco and New York is a well-known problem. Flying under the radar: an affordable housing crisis is growing in every state in the union.
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The rising cost of housing in U.S. cities like San Francisco and New York is a well-known problem. Flying under the radar: an affordable housing crisis is growing in every state in the union.

More than one in four renter families across the country now pay more than half of their income on housing, a staggering statistic that has leapt from 7.5 million to 11.4 million households since 2001 with no signs of stopping.

Affordable housing is rarely mentioned as a national priority or as the national emergency that it is, though it's typically a family's largest monthly expense. This must change.

Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond's new book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City -- which is garnering a lot of attention among policymakers, philanthropists, community developers, poverty and social justice advocates and other thought leaders -- should help.

Desmond's vivid portraits of eight families cycling through economic disaster in Milwaukee make a powerful case for why stable affordable housing is central to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty and creating opportunity nationwide.

Evicted personifies the dire statistics and shows us how families are barely scraping by, forced to make tough choices between buying healthy food and medicine, clothes for the kids and other necessities. Often, they're disconnected from pillars of opportunity like good schools, jobs, transit and other services, profoundly impacting their prospects for success.

If we are serious about creating opportunity in America, we must address the shortage of affordable homes. The economic, health and educational benefits of doing so are clear.

Research increasingly shows the significant impact of stable, affordable housing on families, communities and our economy. Dr. Megan Sandel of Children's HealthWatch calls housing a "vaccine" and says that a stable home "literally keeps children healthy." And, our latest Health in Housing study suggests affordable housing reduces Medicaid costs and emergency room visits while improving access to health care. The evidence is there -- and so is the path to ending the affordable housing crisis.

Solutions must take into account four major steps included in a new vision for U.S. housing policy from Enterprise Community Partners, where we provide affordable housing connected to good schools, jobs, transit and health care.

First, housing policy should ensure broad access to thriving neighborhoods. All families should have the choice to move to "high-opportunity" neighborhoods. According to research from Harvard's Raj Chetty, moving a poor child out of a high-poverty neighborhood to a more affluent community increases her chances of going to college, decreases her chances of becoming a single parent and increases her expected earnings as an adult.

Second, policies should encourage public and private investments in low-income neighborhoods. Not everyone can or wants to move to an affluent neighborhood. We must also encourage investments that empower residents and transform distressed neighborhoods, many of which have long suffered from disinvestment and neglect. Affordable housing is often an important catalyst for revitalization, but it must be paired with long-term investments in local businesses, schools, transit, job training, public safety and healthcare.

Third, we need to change national housing policy to target scarce subsidy dollars where they're needed most. Federal budget cuts have left less than one in four eligible households with rental assistance, resulting in decade-long waiting lists and lotteries for rare openings. Meanwhile, the U.S. spends tens of billions of dollars each year to subsidize mortgages of high-income families. More federal housing subsidy goes to the richest 5 million households -- those making more than $200,000 per year -- than goes to the poorest 20 million households combined. We need to redirect more funds to successful programs like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, the primary affordable housing production tool, that benefit the households that need them most.

Fourth, we need to improve the overall financial stability of low-income households. Families need steady jobs that pay livable wages. But a full-time minimum wage earner can't afford a typical one-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country. An important first step would be to expand wage supplements through the Earned Income Tax Credit, which has bipartisan support.

Taking these steps will demonstrate a promise that we as a country will no longer allow unsafe and unhealthy housing in communities disconnected from good schools, jobs and other opportunities to remain the status quo for millions of families. Many of the proposals already have bipartisan support and were recommended by the Bipartisan Policy Center's Housing Commission, suggesting that the political obstacles to making housing a national priority are surmountable. With the right policies and smart investments, the U.S. can put the affordable housing crisis behind us, once and for all.

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