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.

Is NYC Rent Too Damn High?!?

Husock and Armlovich of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research have posted an Issue Brief, New York’s Rent Burdened Households: Recalculating the Total, Finding a Better Solution. The brief makes some important points, but they are almost lost because of its histrionic tone.

First, the good points. The authors write this brief in reaction to the de Blasio administration’s plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. They believe, however, that the administration has exaggerated the need. They write: “the housing needs of low-income New Yorkers must be acknowledged and addressed. Still, they should not be exaggerated by numbers that fail to reflect the income and in-kind assistance that benefit poor households.” (6)

They argue that the administration’s claim that more than 600,000 households are “severely rent-burdened” is flawed, resulting in an overestimate of the need for affordable housing. While I am not in a position to evaluate the underlying work, they make a reasonable case that the administration did not properly account for the impact of Section 8 housing subsidies and a variety of other programs that offer financial assistance to low-income households in arriving at their number.

They also argue that the administration’s proposed solution, permanent affordability, is flawed because some households that may be income-eligible at the commencement of their tenure in an affordable unit may end up with a significantly higher income down the line. Indeed, this has been a long-time issue with the Mitchell-Lama program.

These are some serious issues for the de Blasio administration to chew over. Clearly, we should be working from the best data we can about the extent to which households are severely burdened by housing costs. (Indeed, another recent study also indicates that the administration is working from too high of an number.) And just as clearly, the solution chosen by the administration should work as effectively as possible to reduce the rent burden for low- and moderate-income households.

But the brief’s tone, unfortunately, masks these insights. First, the brief opens by questioning the basis for the mayor’s affordable housing plan — that many New Yorker’s are severely rent burdened. But the authors acknowledge that at least 300,000 households are severely burdened, even after they make their adjustments to the administration’s numbers. That hardly undercuts the policy rationale for the Mayor’s affordable housing initiative.

Moreover, some of the adjustments made by the authors are themselves suspect. For instance, the authors exclude households “that report severe rent burdens while paying more than the 90th percentile citywide of per-capita” out-of-pocket rent. (5) They state that “Logic dictates that such households have significant existing savings or assets themselves, or they receive assistance from family or other sources.” (5) That seems like an extraordinary “logical” leap to me. While it may describe some households at the 90th percentile, I would think that it is also logical that it includes some people who barely have enough money to buy food.

As to the solution of permanent affordability, the authors write,

a household member could win the lottery, or sign a multimillion-dollar major league baseball contract, and an affordable unit’s rent would remain unchanged. Affordable units would be “permanently” affordable, creating what economists term a “lock-in effect,” limiting the likelihood that such units will be vacated. This is problematic for a city housing policy that seeks to decrease the overall number of severely rent-burdened households. (6)

This is just silly. Very few people have such windfalls. And very few of those who do have such windfalls live in small apartments afterwards. The more common problem is that young, educated people get affordable units when their earnings are low and then become middle-class or upper-middle class over the years. This is a serious program design issue and it means that the administration should think through what permanent affordability should mean over the lifetime of a typical household.

As I noted, this brief raises some serious issues amongst all of its heated rhetoric. One hopes that the administration can get through the hot air to the parts that are informed by cool reason.