INSIDE WASHINGTON/Affordable housing takes center stage
The recent economic slump makes funding all the more critical.
As the need for affordable housing continues to grow, local leaders are turning to Congress for help in building more rental units and creating homeownership opportunities for low-income households. Rising rents have outpaced inflation, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has estimated that 1.1 million low-income housing units were lost between 1997 and 1999. The National Housing Conference estimated in 1997 that 13.7 million households faced “critical housing needs — either they spent more than 50 percent of their income on housing or they lived in substandard housing.”
“The need for affordable housing continues to grow as housing prices increase faster than wages for low-income Americans,” says Paula Sampson, director of the Fairfax County (Va.) Department of Housing and Community Development. “Local government officials believe that a strong federal role in housing and community development programs must continue.”
So far, numerous local leaders have appeared before Congressional committees and met with White House officials, including HUD Secretary and former Orange County (Fla.) Commissioner Mel Martinez, to highlight the nation’s affordable housing crisis. The National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors have created multiple alliances with organizations such as the Mortgage Bankers Association of America (MBA) and the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB), both based in Washington, D.C., to promote the need for affordable housing.
USCM has partnered with the MBA to seek an “increase in the limits on multifamily loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration.” (FHA helps finance family housing development by providing insurance for the projects.)
NACo and NAHB have signed an agreement that says both organizations “strongly agree that assuring quality affordable housing for all Americans is an integral component of smart growth.”
Pleas by city and county leaders have not fallen on deaf ears. While it is a largely symbolic gesture, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D — Ill.) offered a resolution in March that proposed amending the Constitution to say, “All U.S. citizens shall have a right to decent, safe, sanitary and affordable housing.”
Lobbying for additional funding to ease the affordable housing crunch is expected to heat up again next month when Congress returns from its August recess to address the remaining appropriations bills. The recent economic slump makes funding for the nation’s housing needs all the more critical, says Cameron Whitman, the NLC’s director of policy and federal relations. “It looks like we could be in trouble because of the weakening economy and the diminishing size of the 2002 [budget] surplus,” she says.
To help increase affordable housing opportunities, local leaders have engaged in a particularly aggressive lobbying effort this year to increase funding for the Home Investment Partnership Program and the Community Development Block Grant program. City and county leaders say the two popular federal funding programs provide them with the opportunity to use federal dollars to meet specific needs of their respective communities.
“No two programs provide the flexible resources and [successful] outcomes that CDBG and HOME do,” says New Haven (Conn.) Mayor John DeStefano.
Local leaders are calling on Congress to provide $5 billion to help fund the CDBG program. (The White House has proposed funding at $4.8 billion, $310 million less than in 2001.) City and county officials also are requesting that the HOME program be funded at $2.25 billion, $4.5 million more than the administration’s proposal.
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.