Like no time before, the past 18 months have shown us all just how important our homes are.  Speaking from personal experience, I’ve spent more time at home during the course of the pandemic than in the past 20 years combined, or so it seems.  The stability and security that my home has provided my family during this public health crisis has been vital; but stable housing hasn’t always been a constant in my life, and the same is true for far too many of our neighbors across the region and the state.

Even before the pandemic, millions of America’s lowest-income and most marginalized households — people of color, seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, low-wage workers — were just one financial shock away from falling behind on their rent and being threatened with eviction, and in worst cases, homelessness.  With rising housing costs and stagnant incomes for low-wage workers, too many families — including far too many of our neighbors throughout the Charlottesville region— have lived in constant, imminent risk of losing their homes.  The persistent, pandemic-induced unemployment and under-employment among lower-skilled workers has only worsened the problem — and the situation is getting worse, not better.

We do have solutions. We just need the political will to invest in them.

We have public housing.  Federal funding for public housing authorities, including here in Charlottesville, has been cut year over year, rendering them unable to perform necessary critical maintenance, much less make improvements for properties that are on average more than 40 years old.  Nationally, there is an estimated capital improvement backlog of $70 billion.  As a result, our nation loses 10,000 to 15,000 units of public housing every year to obsolescence or decay.

Congress must address this by fully funding public housing authorities to ensure that public housing residents are living in safe, decent, and quality housing.

We have rental assistance through the Housing Choice Voucher Program — the federal rental subsidy program designed to allow low-income households the flexibility to move to neighborhoods of their choice as long as they can afford to do so with the subsidy.  However, only 1 out of every 4 people that qualify for housing assistance nationally receives it due to decades of chronic underfunding by Congress.  What happens to the other 3 out of 4 families?  They struggle mightily in ways that most of us cannot fathom, they’re forced to make daily impossible decisions about putting food on the table, transportation, medical care or spending time with their children while balancing two or three jobs.  The data is clear.  We know that housing stability is the surest way to increase educational engagement and attainment, improve health and provide an opportunity for low-income households to climb up the income ladder and achieve financial stability.

Congress must act to expand rental assistance to ensure that everyone is stably housed. 

We have other forms of affordable housing — just not nearly enough.  There are only 39 affordable rental units available for every 100 of the lowest-income renters in Virginia.  In total, Virginia has a shortage of 150,000 rental homes affordable to households earning 50% or less of the area median income ($46,500), and not a single city or county in Virginia has enough affordable housing to meet the demand.  This lack of choice forces families to pay more for housing than their incomes can reasonably cover — to be sustainable, housing costs should account for no more than 30% of household income.  The cost of housing, along with everything else, continues to go up and incomes have not kept pace, particularly for our lowest wage earners.  Working at the minimum wage of $9.50 per hour in Charlottesville, a person must work 2.2 full-time jobs, or 87 hours per week, to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment; in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment, they must work 2.6 full-time jobs or 103 hours per week.  One of the most effective tools we have to build more affordable housing is the National Housing Trust Fund (HTF).  The HTF is the only federal housing production program targeted to address the market failure that underlies the housing crisis by exclusively focusing on providing the resources to serve households with the clearest, most acute housing needs.  In 2021, Virginia received only $14,340,031 in funding from the HTF — barely scratching the surface of need.

Congress must invest $45 billon in the HTF nationally which would yield more than a million new, deeply affordable homes across the country.

We have pending federal legislation — the Neighborhood Homes Investment Act (NHIA) — that will create a tax credit program to directly benefit aspiring lower income homeowners by spurring investment in and renovation of affordable homeownership opportunities in Charlottesville, in Virginia and across the nation.  The opportunity for homeownership — a vital wealth-building tool — in higher-cost regions like Charlottesville is growing further and further out of reach without the intervention of financial tools like the NHIA.

Congress must pass the NHIA to redress a homeownership market out of control and out of reach for far too many.

Investing in housing, particularly for our lowest income neighbors is a key component of President Biden’s housing platform and is central to any successful strategy to rebuild our economy and advance racial equity.  Congress has the unique opportunity to address housing as a human right, and advance bold housing solutions that move our nation towards stable and affordable homes for everyone.

COMMENTARY/OPINION

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