INSIDE WASHINGTON/Hammering out affordable housing
Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) has authored the Housing Affordability for America Act (H.R. 3995), a bill that would establish a new housing production and preservation element within the Home Investment Partnerships Program (HOME). In addition to creating a funding source for construction and rehabilitation of low- and moderate-income housing, the bill calls for 60 percent of that funding to be given directly to cities and counties. It also seeks to reauthorize key components of HOME, which is the federal government’s largest block grant program dedicated to affordable housing.
Roukema, who this year has held three hearings to discuss the bill, says Congress must act quickly to address the nation’s lack of affordable housing and to assist local governments with means for creating development opportunities. “If we are to expand home ownership and affordable rental opportunities, then we must encourage new production of affordable single and multifamily housing,” she says.
Support for the bill (there are more than 30 cosponsors) comes as news about the nation’s affordable housing grows darker. Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity in April, Benson Roberts, vice president for the New York-based Local Initiatives Support Corp., noted that affordable rental housing has dropped by 1.14 million units in two years (1997-1999, the most recent period for which HUD data are available).
The rental housing market continues to tighten as rents rise faster than inflation and vacancy rates decrease, Roberts said. According to the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors, that situation will worsen as the U.S. population grows by more than 23 million in the next eight years.
Also appearing before the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, National Association of Counties President Javier Gonzales told legislators that NACo, as well as the U.S. Conference of Mayors and other local organizations, back Roukema’s efforts but want alterations to the bill. For example, Roukema proposes paying for the production-preservation program with recaptured Section 8 funds, but local leaders dismiss that method of funding as being unpredictable. Instead, they want a consistent, built-in funding source.
“Relying on the Section 8 project reserves would create a situation of funding uncertainty from year to year,” Gonzales said in his testimony. “We would … prefer to see a specific authorization level of funding for the production [and] preservation program.” Local representatives also would like to see language that creates a loan guarantee program, which would allow cities and counties to build more affordable housing units.
While Roukema proposes changing some elements of the HOME program, she aims to reauthorize others. For example, she wants to retain the Emergency Shelter Grants Program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency Food and Shelter Program, HOPE VI, Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS, the Interagency Council on the Homeless, the Native American Housing and Self Determination Act, the Self Help Homeownership Opportunity Program and Section 8 assistance for Single Room Occupancy Dwellings.
With its many components, the bill potentially strengthens local government control over housing programs, notes Rep. Felix Grucci (R-N.Y.), a former Brookhaven town supervisor. “We must ensure that local governments have the ability to administer these programs effectively, and [the bill’s flexibility] will allow local governments to utilize housing programs in a way that best fits their community.”
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.