Alexander von Hoffman of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies has posted an interesting working paper, To Preserve Affordable Housing in the United States. It opens,
Most Americans who have any idea about low-income housing policy in the United States think of it as composed of programs that either build and manage residences – such as public housing – or help pay the rent – such as rental vouchers. Few people realize that much, perhaps most, of the government’s effort to house poor families and individuals is now devoted to supporting privately owned buildings that, courtesy of government subsidies, already provide low-income housing. Similarly, few know of the national movement to prevent these rental homes from being converted to market-rate housing or demolished and to keep them affordable and available to low-income households.
The problem of “preservation of affordable housing” generally refers to privately owned but government-subsidized dwellings developed under a particular set of federal subsidy programs. Although the first of these programs was enacted in 1959, their heyday – when they produced the bulk of government-subsidized low-income housing – lasted from the late 1960s until the mid-1980s. Before these programs were adopted, the government’s chief low-income housing program had been public housing, in which government agencies funded, developed, owned, leased, and managed apartments for people of limited incomes on a permanent basis.
Starting about 1960, however, the government shifted to a new policy in which it provided subsidies limited to a specific length of time to private developers of low-income rental housing. These private developers could be nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies operating through entities that earned limited dividends. In the low-income rental programs of the 1960s the government subsidized the rents of poor tenants by providing low-interest mortgage loans (through mortgage insurance and/or direct payments) to the projects’ developers. In 1974, Congress added another program, Section 8, in which the government signed a contract to pay a portion of the tenants’ rents for up to twenty years, which was as long as the mortgage subsidies had been.
After the low-income rental projects were completed, a number of circumstances threatened to displace the projects’ low-income occupants from their homes. In the early years especially, some owners faced financial difficulties, including foreclosures. Starting in the boom years of the 1980s, others desired to pay back their subsidized mortgages early (or “prepay”) to rent or sell the apartments at lucrative market rates. And eventually all owners reached the end of the time limit of their original subsidies. To keep low-income tenants in the subsidized apartments, housing advocates fought to keep the subsidized projects livable and within the means of poor people. The cause they rallied to was the “preservation of affordable housing.”
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Since the late 1980s a wide array of interests – including for-profit owners and investors, non-profit developers and managers, and tenants – have organized their interest-group associations and entered into coalitions with one another to shape government policies. They have worked with sympathetic members of Congress and their aides to preserve the subsidized housing stock for low-income Americans. The road has been rough at times. The Reagan administration was indifferent at best to the issue. Legislation in 1987 and 1990 for all practical purposes banned prepayments, angering the owners’ representatives who opposed these laws. After prepayments were again allowed, advocates and owners joined together again to push for affordable housing preservation programs and procedures. The government programs that they attained in the 1990s became a major component of low-income housing policy in the United States.
Until relatively recently, the interest groups focused on shaping federal policy. They worked to pass – or repeal – national legislation and to influence program rules set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Although the federal government continues to be essential to housing policy, the growing political opposition to large federal spending programs has led advocates of affordable housing preservation to press state governments for financial support. (3-5)
This working paper clearly identifies the problems with “[p]oorly thought out programs” that “encouraged bad underwriting and long-term management” and how they played out in affordable housing projects that were not intended to provide for permanent affordability. (73) It also provides a good foundation for a discussion of where affordable housing policy should be heading now.