Americans across the country are struggling with a worsening housing affordability emergency. I’ve seen it firsthand. Working in affordable housing, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in many different communities across the U.S. From rural Maine to the Florida suburbs, in communities across the Midwest and in cities from Seattle to Southern California, Americans are, unfortunately, united in an affordable housing crisis—and without action from Congress this year, it’s only going to get worse.
The statistics are daunting. From 2012 to 2019, for example, housing supply worsened in 47 states and Washington, D.C.; Freddie Mac estimates that the nation is nearly 4 million homes short of what is needed. Median rent passed $2,000 a month for the first time in history earlier this year. Should we be surprised that more than half of American renters cannot afford their rent?
The current situation is untenable, but the public and private sectors can work together to create real solutions. While there is no silver bullet, the new Congress does have a number of potential actions related to appropriated but unspent COVID-19 relief money and remaining funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. Those funds—in addition to any future funding—could be deployed to help ease the housing crisis. In fact, President Biden and Treasury secretary Janet Yellen recently urged states to use the rescue plan to invest in affordable housing creation.
Focused objectives and deployment in new and existing programs can help facilitate speed of implementation and impact, and there are three areas where this money can immediately have positive results:
Preserving Affordable Housing in Rural Communities
While many think of affordable housing as a uniquely urban issue, the reality is that rural communities face their own challenges—and often go overlooked. Rural housing should not be left behind or forgotten in the conversation of affordability.
Affordable housing in rural communities is aging, just like housing across the country. Because they are harder to reach, construction costs are often higher in rural America, which means housing is rarely upgraded. It also disincentivizes new housing development.
In fact, nearly $6 billion is needed just to preserve the affordable housing that already exists in rural communities. The lower rents that typically exist in rural areas reduce financing options for affordable multifamily owners to invest in much-needed physical modernizations. Directing some COVID funds to grants to preserve and improve our affordable rural housing would be an ideal way to inject capital into these areas that desperately need it and ease the burden of an often-unseen housing crisis.
Investing in Resident Services
Anyone who works in affordable housing knows that providing a stable home is only one step in empowering families. On-site services coordinators who build relationships with residents and community stakeholders are key for connecting families with the resources they need. Resident services coordinators handle everything from immediate emergency needs, such as food insecurity, to long-term planning, including financial literacy, access to health care, and educational opportunities.
Even before COVID-19, these coordinators were an essential safety net for residents. Their work increased tremendously during the pandemic and has not eased up. Additional funding to add more of these roles would be a game-changer for thousands of Americans in affordable housing and is likely to have numerous downstream impacts and cost savings by improving the overall health and well-being of residents across the country. Congress could direct additional funds to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) social service grant program to expand the number of service coordinator grants available.
Support Front-Line Building Workers
Congress should invest in the human capital that makes buildings operate in the first place: building staff. Staffing shortages have plagued building operations nationally since COVID began, impacting maintenance and upkeep for residents. It is particularly acute in buildings for seniors. On top of staffing shortages that increase the challenges for existing site staff, the well-known impacts of increasing inflation pose another hurdle. We need to talk more about how those constraints impact the ability to recruit, retain, and reward building workers who are a lifeline to our residents.
Owners are struggling to find ways to ensure this essential front-line site staff is not left behind. Congress can help close this gap and ensure consistent wage growth for site team members. We can achieve this by leveraging existing HUD infrastructure and directing additional specific funding to HUD with guidance to support staffing costs.
While these solutions alone will not solve a housing crisis decades in the making, together, they are actionable and can help make a meaningful difference. It will signal to the millions of Americans across the country that the battle of housing affordability is being tackled in a nonpartisan manner that is holistic, inclusive, and practical.
That is an outcome that every American can and should support.