What are the most pressing issues in housing policy today?
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The most pressing issue is the need for a balanced housing policy that provides suitable choices for renting as well as owning one’s home. Renters can move more easily to follow job opportunities or adjust to changes in household size or income, and they aren’t burdened by maintenance responsibilities or at risk of unpredictable expenses for home repairs. Changes in the labor market and the aging of the population are likely to increase the demand for rental housing over the long term, even after the housing market stabilizes.
Providing suitable rental choices will require a range of policy responses. Among the most important is helping the lowest-income households afford housing, a growing problem as rental costs continue to increase while incomes have stagnated or declined. More than 9 million low-income renter households paid more than half their incomes for housing in 2009, the large majority of whom had incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income. Such high rent burdens leave many families—particularly those with the lowest incomes—with too little money to cover other basic necessities or to improve their earning potential.
The most obvious sign of this mounting distress is the growing number of homeless families with children. Since the recession began in late 2007, the number of homeless families with children living in temporary shelters has risen by 28 percent, to nearly 170,000 families in 2010, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Roughly four times as many families are living “doubled-up” or in other unstable situations, school enrollment data from the Department of Education data suggest. Such housing instability has long-term harmful consequences for children’s health and education.
Yet while affordable housing needs among families with children have risen significantly in the last decade, the number of families with children that receive federal rental assistance has fallen. Unlike many other components of the safety net, federal rental assistance is not an entitlement. Due to limited funding, only one in four eligible households receives assistance.
If Congress doesn’t fund additional housing vouchers or other rental assistance, new households can receive assistance only when others leave the programs. A recent CBPP analysis found that vouchers are least available in the areas where they are most needed to offset high housing costs, since families in high-cost areas tend to need their vouchers for longer periods.
Federal budget constraints will be a major obstacle to efforts to expand rental assistance in the coming years. Indeed, the increasingly severe caps on most “discretionary” spending that will take effect starting in 2013 will make it difficult to prevent cuts in housing assistance. To rebalance our housing policies in this difficult budgetary context likely will require policymakers to muster the political will to scale back tax breaks for higher-income homeowners and use a portion of the savings to assist renters.
Barbara Sard is Vice President for Housing Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Welcome to the BPC Housing Commission expert forum! This forum is intended to foster interactive and substantive discussion about pressing housing issues. Each month contributors from different parts of the housing sector will be invited to respond to a discussion topic. Guest posts will feature prominently on BPC’s website, as well as be shared regularly with Housing Commissioners to help inform their work.
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