Affordability and choice are critical in the years ahead

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What are some of the key characteristics of a healthy housing system? And how can the success of these features be measured?

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A healthy housing system would give all households affordable housing choices. Those emphasized words reflect the three key elements of such a system.

All: the system fails to the extent that families and individuals are homeless or living in institutions such as nursing homes when they could live in accessible housing in the community with supportive services. Despite some progress in reducing homelessness among veterans and people with disabilities, the number of homeless people at any given point in time has remained essentially static for the last several years at about 640,000. More than ten times that number lack housing of their own and are doubled up with others. Clearly, our current housing system fails this most basic test.

Affordable: housing costs should leave families with sufficient income for other necessities. The common affordability ceiling for housing costs is 30 percent of a household’s income; families are considered severely cost-burdened if housing takes up more than half of their income. Because families often incur higher transportation costs by moving further away from their jobs to find housing they can afford, it is important to supplement the common affordability measures with developing metrics on the combined costs of housing and transportation.

Whichever affordability limit you use, our housing system's performance has gotten worse over the last decade. In 2009, more than 19 million households — renters and owners — paid more than half their income for housing, a 38 percent jump since 2001. While the worsening trends partly reflect the economic downturn of the last several years, they predated the recession and likely will continue even after unemployment declines.

Choices: families should have suitable choices about housing type and location, including the ability to live in housing outside areas of concentrated poverty. Growing up in high-poverty areas has been shown to impair children's life chances in multiple ways.

Of course, housing choices will always depend somewhat on family income and wealth, but for many years our laws have prohibited discrimination in access to credit or in the rental or sale of homes based on race, ethnicity, disability, gender, and family status. Measures of housing discrimination indicate that we still have far to go to achieve the "fair" housing our laws require. And despite some progress in the last 40 years, our housing continues to have an unhealthy amount of racial isolation and poverty concentration.

Barbara Sard is Vice President for Housing Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities


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