Housing is a Right

I believe every American should have a right to decent, safe, attractive housing at a price they can afford. We said that once before, in the Housing Act of 1949. We have never delivered on the promise.

We live in a capitalist society. Markets – supply and demand—are supposed to determine the availability and cost of housing. How is it possible to guarantee housing – affordable housing – to all without walking across the line into socialism?

And how, in these difficult budget times, can we afford it?

As to the philosophical issue, I really don’t care. Capitalism, socialism, meritocracy, theocracy, democracy. Call it whatever you want. Having a decent and stable home is a critical part of building a reasonable life for any household. A homeless family moves, on average, 3-4 times a year. Just imagine a third grader or a seventh grader going to three different schools, with three different teachers and three different sets of classmates each year. Would you be surprised if they did poorly in school? Would you be surprised if, later in life, they were chronically unemployed or underemployed? If there is an ounce of compassion in our national soul, we must assure access to decent housing. Don’t like the “softness” of compassion as a guide to good policy? OK, how about this. If we don’t do everything possible to make certain that family has an affordable and permanent home, we are sowing the seeds of our own national downfall – financially, socially and logistically. Do it out of crass self-interest.

But how would we do it? There is no mystery here. We have several programs that can do this work. Public Housing, the Section 8 program, and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and a well regulated secondary mortgage market are all basically good ideas. The new National Affordable Housing Trust Fund is another one. They all need tweaking and they should all have about 75% of their regulations cancelled. But fund those adequately and we have a solution.

So what about the money? Roughly speaking, about ¼ of all the households eligible for affordable housing (earning less than 80% of the median income in their geographical area) are served by one of the programs mentioned above. So, multiply the budgets of those programs by about 4 and we’re there. And we’re probably under $100 Billion per year. Not exactly chump change, but not a budget buster either.

Where will we get that additional money? There are two easy solutions and a hard one. The hard one is the federal income tax credits for home ownership that go overwhelmingly to the wealthy. It’s easy conceptually, but hard politically and culturally. This provision has been in our tax code since the first income tax collection in 1913. It’s considered a birthright by nearly everybody. It’s not going away. (And if it got some tweaking, it wouldn’t be such bad policy anyway.)

First easy solution. Reduce the budgets for the other programs that pay for housing related costs when people don’t have their own decent and affordable housing. Take some money from the shelter programs. We’ll need fewer shelter beds. Take some money from the social service programs that deal with the fall-out from inadequate housing. There will be less need for them. Take some money from the special purpose mental health and mental retardation facilities programs. Take some money from the correctional system. Take some money from the fire protection systems that deal with the consequences of overcrowding and poor housing quality.

Second easy solution. Take money from other parts of the budget. I have been involved in the affordable housing field for nearly 40 years – through some of the best and some of the worst financial times in our nation’s history. And nobody has ever said anything except “In these difficult budget times. . .” It’s not about whether there is “enough” money. It’s about how we choose to spend the money we have. When President Bush wanted to start the war in Iraq, he asked the Congress to find $87 Billion. They did it virtually overnight. So don’t tell me there is no money. Let’s have a debate. Housing or air craft carriers? Housing or farm subsidies? Housing or tax breaks for billionaires? Housing or Jails? Housing or guns?

On the question of affordable housing, I’m with Nike – just do it.

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