WASHINGTON--You could call it the forgotten issue--except for the fact that in almost every city I've visited this year, from Sacramento to Tallahassee to Boston, the shortage of affordable housing is close to the top of people's concerns.
It's mainly in Washington, D.C.--the federal government, not the local community--that housing is a chronically neglected subject. It has been a dozen years since Congress passed a comprehensive housing bill.
When the congressionally mandated Millennial Housing Commission delivered its report on May 30, after 17 months of work, "it landed in Washington with a thud," as one commission staffer put it. Not even the secretary of housing and urban development issued a reaction statement, and news coverage was cursory.
A week earlier, when the U.S. Conference of Mayors held a housing summit and produced its own action blueprint, the ripple of interest was even smaller. Conceding the obvious, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, the new president of the conference, said, "The nation's affordable housing crisis should be on everyone's radar screen right now, but it is not."
One reason, clearly, is that housing has been, in many respects, a great American success story. Said Richard Ravitch, the veteran New York housing expert who was co-chairman of the commission: "We have probably accomplished more to provide housing ... than any other place in the world. We have the greatest percentage of home ownership ... the greatest housing finance system ... (and) a series of government programs aimed at providing housing for the very poor and at making mortgage credit available to anyone."
So what's to worry? Simply this: Not only are millions of very poor families still living in crowded, substandard conditions, but more and more working families are finding rents consuming most of their income--and home ownership beyond their reach.
"There is a pending crisis, that there is not enough affordable housing ... for Americans everywhere," said former Rep. Susan Molinari, the commission's Republican co-chairman. The commission says that more than 28 million families--one in four--spend more on housing than the 30 percent of income the federal government considers affordable. One in eight low-income families, those working for the minimum wage, spend more than half their income on housing.
That this is the case following a decade of prosperity is explainable by the old law of supply and demand. In the 1990s, fewer than half as many multi-family housing units were produced as in each of the two previous decades. With prosperity, builders moved to the upscale market, prodded not just by the pursuit of profits but by the NIMBY factor--not in my back yard--that made locating moderate-priced units increasingly difficult. Meantime, federal appropriations were insufficient for proper maintenance of subsidized units, so the supply of public housing shrank.
Both the mayors and the commission said that a comprehensive approach--embracing home ownership incentives, subsidies for rental units and more public housing--is needed. Otherwise, warns the National Housing Conference, a private, nonprofit group, more police, firefighters, nurses, janitors, sales clerks and their families will join the millions of others like them who cannot afford to live in the communities where they work.
At the mayors' meeting, leaders of public health, education and senior citizens' groups all commented on the central role that adequate housing plays in maintaining the social structure of a community. Their support could make housing more than a "poor people's issue."
But Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a housing advocate, told me, "The real need is more production, and that is not getting the attention"--either from most of his colleagues or from the Bush administration. HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, after bragging to the mayors that his department got a 7 percent increase in its budget this year, told them, "Housing issues are predominantly local issues. ...The solution to meeting the nation's affordable housing needs will not come out of Washington."
When I asked Martinez last week for comment on the commission report, he recalled those words, and said he was pleased the commission had not endorsed a proposal, opposed by the Bush administration, to create a national housing trust fund, which would recycle receipts from current federal housing programs into subsidies for preserving, rehabilitating and building more units, rather than turning the money into the Treasury.
Taxes on gasoline and airline tickets are recycled into transportation, but this country has never given the same priority to adequate housing for all its people as it does to speeding travelers on their way.
Some day that may change, but not now.
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