The Missing Piece in The Affordable Housing Puzzle

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has posted The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes. The report opens,

One of the biggest barriers to economic stability for families in the United States struggling to make ends meet is the severe shortage of affordable rental homes. The housing crisis is most severe for extremely low income renters, whose household incomes are at or below the poverty level or 30% of their area median income (see Box 1). Facing a shortage of more than 7.2 million affordable and available rental homes, extremely low income households account for nearly 73% of the nation’s severely cost-burdened renters, who spend more than half of their income on housing.

Even with these housing challenges, three out of four low income households in need of housing assistance are denied federal help with their housing due to chronic underfunding. Over half a million people were homeless on a single night in 2017 and many more millions of families without assistance face difficult choices between spending their limited incomes on rent or taking care of other necessities like food and medical care. Despite the serious lack of affordable housing, President Trump proposes further reducing federal housing assistance for the lowest income households through budget cuts, increased rents and work requirements.

Based on the American Community Survey (ACS), this report presents data on the affordable housing supply, housing cost burdens, and the demographics of severely impacted renters. The data clearly illustrate a chronic and severe shortage of affordable homes for the lowest income renters who would be harmed even more by budget cuts  and other restrictions in federal housing programs. (2, citations omitted)

The report’s key findings include,

  • The nation’s 11.2 million extremely low income renter households account for 25.7% of all renter households and 9.5% of all households in the United States.
  • The U.S. has a shortage of more than 7.2 million rental homes affordable and available to extremely low income renter households. Only 35 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low income renter households.
  • Seventy-one percent of extremely low income renter households are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their incomes on rent and utilities. They account for 72.7% of all severely cost-burdened renter households in the United States.
  • Thirty-two percent of very low income, 8% of low income, and 2.3% of middle income renter households are severely cost-burdened.
  • Of the eight million severely cost-burdened extremely low income renter households, 84% are seniors, persons with disabilities, or are in the labor force. Many others are enrolled in school or are single adults caring for a young child or a person with a disability. (2, citations omitted)

While the report does show how wrongheaded the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts to housing subsidies are, I was surprised that it did not address at all the impact of local zoning policies on housing affordability. There is no way that we are going to address the chronic shortage in affordable housing by subsidies alone.

The federal government will need to disincentivize local governments from implementing land use policies that keep affordable housing from being built in communities that have too little housing. These rules make single family homes too expensive by requiring large lots and make it too difficult to build multifamily housing. We cannot seriously tackle the affordability problem without addressing restrictive local land use policies.

The Gap in Affordable Homes

photo by Kenneth Frantz

The National Low Income Housing Coalition posted a report, The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes. The report opens,

For the first time since the recession, U.S. household income increased significantly during 2015. Gains were seen even among the lowest income households, with the poverty rate declining from 14.8% to 13.5%. Millions of people, however, continue to struggle economically. Household income for the poorest 10% of households remains 6% lower today than in 2006, and more than 43 million Americans remain in poverty, many of whom struggle to afford their homes.

Each year, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) measures the availability of rental housing affordable to extremely low income (ELI) households and other income groups. This year’s analysis is slightly different from previous years in that NLIHC adopted the federal government’s new statutory definition for ELI, which are households whose income is at or below either the poverty guideline or 30% of their area median income (AMI), whichever is higher. Based on 2015 American Community Survey (ACS) data, this report provides information on the affordable housing supply and housing cost burdens at the national, state, and metropolitan levels. This year’s analysis continues to show that ELI households face the largest shortage of affordable and available rental housing and have more severe housing cost burdens than any other group. (2, citations omitted)

The report’s key findings include:

• 11.4 million ELI renter households accounted for 26% of all U.S. renter households and nearly 10% of all households.

• The U.S. has a shortage of 7.4 million affordable and available rental homes for ELI renter households, resulting in 35 affordable and available units for every 100 ELI renter households.

• Seventy-one percent of ELI renter households are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their income on rent and utilities. These 8.1 million severely cost-burdened households account for 72.6% of all severely cost-burdened renter households in the U.S.

• Thirty-three percent of very low income (VLI) renter households; 8.2% of low income (LI) renter households, and 2.4% of middle income (MI) renter households are severely cost-burdened.

• ELI renter households face a shortage of affordable and available rental homes in every state. The shortage ranges from just 15 affordable and available homes for every 100 ELI renter households in Nevada to 61 in Alabama.

• The housing shortage for ELI renters ranges from 8,700 rental homes in Wyoming to 1.1 million in California. (2)

It is of course important to talk about this gap as an affordable housing issue, but as I have written before, it is as much an income problem as a housing problem. It’s not just that the rent is too damn high, but that the paycheck is just too damn low.

I don’t see anything on the political horizon that will address this fundamental set of problems, but we should at least identify it properly so we can work toward a solution when the time is right.

The Long Wait for Home


The most recent issue of Housing Spotlight from the National Low Income Housing Coalition is titled The Long Wait for a Home. The Executive Summary reads,

The Public Housing and Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) programs provide essential affordable housing to some of the nation’s most financially vulnerable households. Forty percent of new public housing admissions and 75% of new voucher holders each year are required to be extremely low income (ELI) households, who earn no more than 30% of their area’s median income (AMI) or the federal poverty guideline, whichever is higher. Seventy-one percent of the nearly 1.1 million public housing households and 74% of the 2.2 million HCV recipient households are ELI (HUD, 2015).

The housing resources available to ELI renters however are insufficient. The private and subsidized rental markets make available only 3.2 million affordable homes for the nation’s 10.4 million ELI renter households, resulting in a national shortage of 7.2 million rental homes (NLIHC, 2016). ELI households face a long wait for housing assistance. Unable to find affordable housing, 75% of ELI renter households are severely cost burdened, spending more than 50% of their income on housing costs and leaving little money for other necessities (NLIHC, 2016).

The last nationwide survey of Public Housing Agencies (PHAs) regarding their public housing and voucher waiting lists was conducted in 2012. Since then, rental affordability has worsened, squeezing ELI renters even further out of the private market. To document the current state of waiting lists, NLIHC surveyed PHAs in the Fall of 2015 and Winter of 2016. Three hundred twenty PHAs responded with complete surveys, representing a diversity of size, location, and metropolitan status.

Survey data paint a bleak picture of waiting lists closed to new applicants and long waits for housing assistance. Key findings include: „

  • Fifty-three percent of HCV waiting lists were closed to new applicants for housing assistance. Sixty-five percent of HCV waiting lists closed to the general public had been closed for at least one year. „
  • Eleven percent of public housing waiting lists were closed to new applicants. Thirty-seven percent of public housing waiting lists closed to the general public had been closed for at least one year. „
  • The median HCV waiting list had a wait time of 1.5 years. Twenty-five percent of HCV waiting lists had a wait time of 3 years or longer. „
  • The median public housing waiting list had a wait time of 9 months. Twenty-five percent of public housing waiting lists had a wait time of 1.5 years or longer. „
  • ELI households accounted for nearly 74% of households on the average HCV waiting list and more than 67% of households on the typical public housing waiting list.
  • Families with children accounted for 60% of households on the average HCV waiting list and 46% of households on the typical public housing waiting list. „
  • Seniors comprised the most common type of household on 15% of the public housing waiting lists for which these data were provided.

Closed waiting lists and long waits for housing assistance make clear that we must expand housing resources for our nation’s lowest income renters. Legislation introduced in the 114th Congress would increase investments in vouchers, public housing, and other housing programs.

*     *      *

These policy changes, and others like them, could end housing poverty and homelessness once and for all by providing the resources necessary for every low income family to afford a home.

This report rightly brings attention to the big problems facing extremely low income households and federal affordable housing programs. Whether anything is done for them depends completely on the outcome of the election.

The Housing/Income Affordability Gap

We need affordable housing

The Urban Institute has issued a policy brief, The Housing Affordability Gap for Extremely Low-Income Renters in 2013. The brief opens,

Since 2000, rents have risen while the number of renters who need low-priced housing has increased. These two pressures make finding affordable housing even tougher for very poor households in America. Nationwide, only 28 adequate and affordable units are available for every 100 renter households with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income. Not a single county in the United States has enough affordable housing for all its extremely low-income (ELI) renters. The number of affordable rental homes for every 100 ELI renters ranges from 7 in Osceola County, Florida, to 76 in Worcester County, Maryland.

*     *     *

This brief is the first publication on housing affordability to combine detailed county-level data on ELI renter households (those with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median) and the impact of US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rental assistance. Its four key findings:

  • Supply is not keeping up with demand. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of ELI renter households increased 38 percent, from 8.2 million to 11.3 million. At the same time, the supply of adequate, affordable, and available rental homes for these households increased only 7 percent, from 3.0 million to 3.2 million.
  • The gap between ELI renter households and suitable units is widening over time. From 2000 to 2013, the number of adequate, affordable, and available rental units for every 100 ELI renter households nationwide declined from 37 to 28.
  • Extremely low-income renters increasingly depend on HUD programs for housing. More than 80 percent of adequate, affordable, and available homes for ELI renter households are HUD-assisted, up from 57 percent in 2000.
  • The supply of adequate, affordable, and available units varies widely across the country. Among the 100 largest US counties, Suffolk County, which includes Boston, comes closest to meeting its area’s need, with 51 units per 100 ELI renter households.Denton County, part of the Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan area, has the largest housing gap,with only 8 units per 100 ELI renters. Rust Belt areas (e.g., Detroit, MI; Chicago,IL, and Milwaukee, WI) have seen large declines in adequate, affordable, and available units. Most counties had fewer units available in 2013 than 2000. Notable exceptions to this trend include Suffolk, MA; Los Angeles, CA; and Miami, FL, which have expanded their number of available units since 2000. (1-2, footnote omitted)

The brief concludes, “Simply put, virtually no affordable housing units would be available to ELI households absent the continued investment in federally assisted rental housing.” (14)

This is an affordable housing story, but it is just as much an income story — low-income households are getting left behind in the race between rising income and expenses. One solution is to expand housing assistance for low-income families. Another is to increase income, one way or another. The bottom line, though, is that low-income households don’t have enough to make a go of it in these United States.

Housing, Out of Reach


The National Low Income Housing Coalition has released Out of Reach 2015: Low Wages & HIgh Rents Lock Renters Out. The Introduction reads,

Since its founding in 1974 by federal housing policy expert, Cushing Dolbeare, NLIHC has used data to document America’s housing affordability crisis. As part of her original analysis, Cushing observed a fundamental mismatch between the wages people earn and the price of decent housing, what we now call Out of Reach. Today, housing is still out of reach for far too many, and the gap between what people earn and the price of decent housing continues to grow.

The 2015 Housing Wage is $19.35 for a two-bedroom unit, and $15.50 for a one-bedroom unit. The Housing Wage for a two-bedroom unit is more than 2.5 times the federal minimum wage, and $4 more than the estimated average wage of $15.16 earned by renters nationwide. The Housing Wage is an estimate of the full time hourly wage that a household must earn to afford a decent apartment at HUD’s estimated Fair Market Rent (FMR), while spending no more than 30% of income on housing costs. The data in Out of Reach illustrate the gap between wages and rents across the country. In 13 states and D.C. the 2015 Housing Wage is more than $20 per hour.

Many renters earn far less than the Housing Wage in their community and struggle to find an affordable place to live. This edition of Out of Reach highlights some of the economic challenges facing low income renters, including lagging wages, inconsistent job growth, and the rising cost of living. Undoubtedly, the lack of affordable housing remains the overarching problem for low income households, a problem made worse by these economic challenges.

Expanding and preserving the supply of quality, affordable housing is essential to any strategy to end homelessness, poverty, and economic inequality. As our nation’s policymakers seek ways of overcoming these societal ills, access to affordable housing must be a cornerstone of any proposal. (1, emphasis removed)

Some of the particular findings are disturbing. For instance, “There is no state  in the U.S. where a minimum wage worker working full time can afford a one-bedroom apartment at the fair market rent.” (1) This state of affairs reflects many trends, including the fact that the minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation and is worth less today than it was a few decades ago. It is worth unpacking this finding a bit.

The report defines “affordability” as costing “no more than 30% of a household’s gross income” for rent and utilities. (2) It defines “Fair Market Rent” as “the 40th percentile of gross rents for typical, non-substandard rental units.” (2) In some ways, this report overstates the affordability crisis because minimum wage workers may be able to afford housing that falls below the 40th percentile of gross rents. Perhaps a better measure would have been to determine how many units are available to the minimum wage workers in that jurisdiction. That being said, the report does document how “rents remain out of reach for many renters.” (2) For instance, 75% of extremely low income renters spend more than 50% of their income on housing costs . . ..” (5)

Income and wealth inequality have reached extreme proportions in America today. This report highlights how this is playing out in the context of the housing market. (I would also note, however, that the report does not account for how restrictive land use policies keep the supply of new housing from growing many communities, but that may just be a subject for another report.)

Affordable Housing for which Low-Income Households?

The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s latest issue of Housing Spotlight provides its annual examination of “the availability of rental housing affordable to” extremely low income “and low income renter households . . ..” (1) It finds that

the gap between the number of ELI households and the number of rental homes that are both affordable and available to them has grown dramatically since the foreclosure crisis and recession. Despite this growing need, most new rental units being built are only affordable to households with incomes above 50% of AMI. At the same time, the existing stock of federally subsidized housing is shrinking through demolition and contract expirations, and waiting lists for housing assistance remain years long in many communities. Federal housing assistance is so limited that just one out of every four eligible households receives it. (1, emphasis in the original)
The article, “Affordable Housing is Nowhere to be Found for Millions,” describes the role of the National Housing Trust Fund, signed into law by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, but only recently funded by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac:
The NHTF is structured as a block grant to states, and at least 90% of all funding will be used to produce, preserve, rehabilitate and operate rental housing. Further, 75% of rental housing funding must benefit ELI. The funding of the NHTF will make a difference in the lives of many ELI renters by supporting the development and preservation of housing affordable to this income group. However, additional funding to the NHTF will be necessary to assure support to all income eligible households in need of housing. (1, footnote omitted)
The NLIHC’s key findings from this work include,
  • The number of ELI renter households rose from 9.6 million in 2009 to 10.3 million in 2013 and they made up 24% of all renter households in 2013.
  • There was a shortage of 7.1 million affordable rental units available to ELI renter households in 2013. Another way to express this gap is that there were just 31 affordable and available units per 100 ELI renter households. The data show no change from the analysis a year ago.
  • For the 4.1 million renter households DLI renter households in 2013, there was a shortage of 3.4 million affordable rental units available to them. There were just 17 affordable and available units per 100 DLI renter households.
  • Seventy-five percent of ELI renter households spent more than half of their income on rent and utilities; 90% of DLI renter households spent more than half of their income for rent and utilities.
  • In every state, at least 60% of ELI renters paid more than half of their income on rent and utilities. (1)

Given that housing affordability remained a problem during both boom times and bust and given that we should not expect another dramatic expansion of federal subsidies for rental housing, now might be a good time to ask what we can reasonably expect from the Housing Trust Fund. Should it be spread wide and thin, helping many a bit, or narrow and deep, helping a few a lot? No right answers here.

Housing Subsidies For Those Who Need Them

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has posted Aligning Federal Low Income Housing Programs with Housing Need. The Executive Summary goes right to the heart of the matter:

The number of renters in the United States has steadily increased since 2006 and will continue to rise as new households form in the post-recession economy. In 2012, one out of four renter households had incomes at or below 30% of the area median income (AMI) for a total of 10.3 million households categorized as extremely low income (ELI). In the same year there were just 3.2 million units affordable and available to ELI households, creating a shortage of 7.1 million rental units affordable to these households.

Despite this evidence of a substantial need for deeply affordable rental housing, the low income housing resources that are provided by the federal government are only able to reach 23% of the eligible population. (iii)
This study looks at the extent to which the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), the HOME program and the Federal Home Loan Banks’ Affordable Housing Program (AHP) serve ELI households. It finds that in general, “these three programs do not serve ELI households on their own. Their ability to serve ELI households depends on the addition of one or more forms of subsidy, usually housing choice vouchers (HCV).” (iii)
The study identifies common themes from its research on this topic:
  • Developers layer multiple funding sources while adapting to rapidly changing political and fiscal environments. Many also rely on non-traditional resources, such as private donations, to fill funding gaps.
  • Reducing or eliminating mortgage debt is critical to be able to serve ELI households.
  • Cultivating strong local partnerships is a key factor affecting developers’ ability to serve ELI households. Often, local jurisdictions that have prioritized affordable housing are willing to donate land or property at a low cost.
  • Cross-subsidization is an important strategy used by many developers committed to inclusive properties that serve ELI households. This strategy incorporates units affordable to ELI households into projects containing other units occupied by households with a broader mix of incomes. The rents paid by higher income households supplement the overall operating expenses of the project, compensating for the lower rents that ELI households can afford.
  • While the case studies highlighted some very effective strategies for serving ELI households without the use of vouchers, there is not one model that can be easily replicated. (iii-iv)

None of this is particularly earth shattering, but it is useful to to look into this topic in a systematic way. The Coalition hopes that this report “will contribute to the broader conversation about simplifying the process of financing affordable housing developments, refining existing programs so that they incentivize developers to serve ELI households, and finding ways to fund the ongoing operating costs of units that do serve ELI renters.” (iv)

As an off-the-cuff response, I wonder if the nation’s affordable housing agenda is benefited from such a complex funding environment for housing for extremely low income households. Can it just be funded more comprehensively, acknowledging the reality that it requires deep subsidies from the get-go? What is the opportunity cost of requiring developers to devote so much time to creating such complicated deal structures? In the current political environment, I doubt that affordable housing advocates have the stomach to raise these questions, lest Congress decides to cut back affordable housing subsidies even further. But in the long term, these are questions worth asking.