Opinion: A 21st-century response to affordable housing challenges

America is strongest when her people are strong. Therefore, when considering policy to improve our nation, we should always incentivize striving with an emphasis on equality of opportunity, understanding that a rising tide lifts all boats.

In my role as president of the Jack Kemp Foundation, I moderated an “Innovations in Affordable Housing” webinar.  The webinar featured a panel of nationally known affordable housing experts, hosted by affordable housing developer National CORE, with the Sarasota Housing Authority, the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC) and the Housing Partnership Network (HPN) as panelists.

These policy leaders highlighted innovative solutions being pursued across the country to combat homelessness, house low-income families, and use affordable housing as a tool to improve the lives of those who need a hand up, not a handout.

What did we learn?

First, skyrocketing rents are placing a severe strain on families, seniors, and disabled persons of limited financial means as they seek affordable places to live. The most obvious impact is an increase in homelessness – which creates a host of additional community challenges. But this crisis also saps families’ resources for basic necessities and limits economic mobility.

We learned that the costs to build affordable housing rental units are also soaring. This makes it more difficult than ever to meet housing demand for lower-income families, since the rents they can afford do not cover the capital and operating costs of building new housing.

But one thing we have learned over the last 50 years is that we cannot just throw money at the problem. The cost of having federal taxpayers fund the full cost of needed affordable housing units – or subsidizing rents – is prohibitive and unrealistic. So, we need to be wise. We need to leverage our limited federal funding sources to access private sources of capital, using market-based approaches that maximize efficiency of the federal dollars being spent.

We need to prioritize local solutions.

Top-down federal grant programs, in silos separated by federal agencies and hampered by cumbersome rules, are not the answer. The housing tax credit program is a good model. Funds are competitively allocated by states to individual developments, ongoing accountability is maximized by the need to maintain tax eligibility for investor tax deductions and local developers compete for scarce dollars based on need and the merit of their proposals.

We also need to focus on people, not just buildings. Our affordable housing programs cannot just be about warehousing people living in poverty. They need to be about promoting the health, well-being and economic mobility of low-income families living in affordable housing. Our policies should focus on root causes of homelessness, such as mental health and addiction, as well as accessing health care and other community services.

Unfortunately, our housing policies are often grounded in the distant past.

HUD funds over $200 million a year for service coordinators to help families and seniors access services in their local communities. But these programs are arbitrarily limited to public and Section 8 housing units. This means that almost 100% of the new affordable housing built in the last 50 years – and the residents they serve – are ineligible for these grants. And there are no federal programs that directly fund resident services in federally funded affordable housing.

Congress should expand eligibility for resident services for low-income families – a good investment of federal funds. Accessing local health care services can help seniors avoid the alternative of nursing homes, which cost taxpayers considerably more as they pick up the tab through Medicaid.

Family self-sufficiency resident services are also a good investment. Such programs help low-income residents gain educational and occupational skills – which can help them take the step to affording market-price homes. Each time this happens, it’s the equivalent of building a new affordable housing unit for another low-income family.

The April 13 panel also explored other priorities that Congress should pursue. There is an almost universal consensus among housing advocates that the volume of low-income housing tax credits must be boosted. One panelist argued for adoption of the Neighborhood Homes Act, which would establish a federal tax credit for new construction or substantial rehabilitation of affordable, owner-occupied housing in distressed urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods.

Another panelist suggested creating tax incentives for the long-term preservation of affordable housing units owned by qualified nonprofits, a far more cost-effective approach than building new units.

There is no shortage of ideas for meeting the modern-day challenges of affordable housing. I hope the ideas circulating in our webinar can spur further national discussion and debate in Congress about the most effective ways to modernize policy prescriptions and meet that challenge in a way that helps all Americans flourish.

Jimmy Kemp is the President of the Jack Kemp Foundation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of HousingWire’s editorial department and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jimmy Kemp at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Sarah Wheeler at [email protected]

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