Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

November 21, 2017

Housing Problems and Federal Assistance

By David Reiss

Family living in a one-room tenement. New York, NY, USA (1890) by Jacob Riis. This version was colorized by Kelly Short.

The Urban Institute’s G. Thomas Kingsley has posted a brief, Trends in Housing Problems and Federal Housing Assistance. It opens,

In the 1930s, many American families lived in seriously deficient housing. To address that challenge, the federal government began building subsidized housing, and in the decades that followed, a complex array of federal programs evolved to tackle the continuing housing problems of low-income renters. Almost 10 years ago, the Urban Institute prepared a “primer”to assess this evolution. This brief is an update of major sections of that report, focusing on trends in national housing problems and federal housing assistance over the past decade. It shows that renter housing needs have grown substantially—almost totally because of unaffordably high rents rather than physical deficiencies—and federal housing assistance is not keeping up. The number of low-income renters that actually receive federal housing assistance has dropped notably as a fraction of the low-income households that need it. Evidence indicates that this gap will worsen.

. . . this brief explains the basics of US housing assistance to those unfamiliar with the field. After a summary, it (1) reviews recent changes in the number of US households by tenure and the nature of the housing problems renters face, (2) identifies the nation’s major federal housing assistance programs and explains how they work, (3) examines changes in the scale and spatial patterns of federal housing assistance and the characteristics of assisted households, and (4) identifies recent policy shifts and issues affecting future directions for these programs and pointing out literature offering fuller explanations. (1)

Its main findings include,

  • Household formation has slowed, and the renter share has significantly increased (mostly among the lowest-income groups).
  • Physical housing problems decline as the affordability challenge increases.
  • There are many more households with housing needs.
  • Since 2007, the number of households receiving HUD project-based assistance (in public housing or in privately owned subsidized projects) remained stable, while the number receiving housing vouchers increased.
  • But the modest increase in HUD deep-subsidy assistance has been overshadowed by growth in the need; the housing assistance gap has widened significantly.
  • The beneficiaries served by HUD programs is shifting away from families with children and toward the elderly and disabled.
  • The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit has been the fastest-growing US housing program over the past two decades. It does not necessarily add to the number of households receiving assistance, but it allows deep-subsidy resources to be spread among more households than would be possible without it.
  • Given forces at play, the housing assistance gap will likely worsen. (2-3)

There’s a lot more in the brief for those who want an overview of where we are with housing in the early 21st century.

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