In these latter weeks of November I find myself moving between U.S. House of Representatives impeachment hearings during the day and Democratic presidential debates at night. I continue to search for substantive, meaningful and forward looking policy proposals by our top elected leaders that squarely address some of the most pressing issues facing American citizens. One of those for me – and I know millions of average Americans – is safe, decent and affordable housing. To date I have heard nothing inspiring.
America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family and your community writes Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond. He goes on to observe that this is only possible if you have a stable home. The persistence and brutality of American poverty can be disheartening, leaving us cynical about solutions. But as low-income renters will tell you, a good home can serve as the sturdiest of footholds. When people have a place to live, they become better parents, workers and citizens.
If low income renters did not have to dedicate 70 to 80 percent of their income on rent Desmond observes they could keep their kids fed and clothed and off the streets. They could settle down in one neighborhood and enroll their children in one school, providing them the opportunity to form long-lasting relationships with friends, role models and teachers. They could start a savings account or buy their children toys and books, perhaps even a home computer. For nearly a century there has been consensus that families should not spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Now, across America, that reality is gone. The result is that annually not tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands but now millions of poor Americans are evicted and forced into homelessness.
Public and private initiatives that promote affordable housing are among the most meaningful and effective anti-poverty programs in America. These programs, have in the past, reduced homelessness and allowed families to devote more resources to health care, transportation and food. However, a majority of poor families have not received assistance. In 2013, only 1 percent of poor renters lived in rent-controlled units; 15 percent lived in public housing; and 17 percent received a government subsidy (like a housing voucher). The remaining 67 percent received no federal assistance. This dramatic shortfall in government support, coupled with rising rent and utility costs alongside stagnant incomes, is the reason why most poor renting families today spend most of their income on housing (50 percent for 20 percent of Americans). The irony here is that while housing aid for the poor has been restricted in recent decades housing assistance has increased for the affluent in the form of tax benefits for homeowners. For example, in 2008 federal expenditures for direct housing assistance totaled less than $40.2 billion, but homeowner tax benefits exceeded $171 billion. Meaning that current federal housing subsidies largely benefit families with six-figure incomes.
Too many of our cities have become unaffordable to our poorest families, and this problem is leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation. Within our national urban policy framework safe, decent and affordable housing must be a basic right for everyone in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.