On November 3, BPC’s Dennis Shea spoke with CEO of Habitat for Humanity International Jonathan Reckford for a virtual fireside chat. In addition to Habitat’s well-known home construction program, the nonprofit also plays an important role in neighborhood revitalization, mortgage financing, and public policy advocacy. Here is what Mr. Reckford had to say about enhancing housing affordability for families in the U.S.
1: Focus on increasing housing supply
“We are in a housing affordability crisis,” Reckford said. Even in markets like Florida, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Dallas, where Habitat used to be able to build affordable homes, prices have significantly increased. In response to the crisis, he suggested a focus on increasing the supply of homes both for sale and rent: “I would say first and foremost, our focus is on supply,” Reckford said. “If you look back, we [as a country] have underbuilt…[by] at least … 3.8 million units.”
One of the ways Habitat works to increase supply is through modular housing. “I remember after Hurricane Katrina…we partnered with modular builders for some of those rural communities. They could build homes to 70 or 80% [of the cost], because the key bottleneck was actually [a lack of] plumbers, electricians, and drywallers,” Reckford explained. He also cited increased efficiencies resulting from building parts of a home in a factory, transporting the house, and setting it up. Recently, Reckford noted a successful partnership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Habitat affiliates, and modular builders to build “a neighborhood at a time instead of just a house at a time.”
2: Support mixed-income, mixed-use housing
“A huge focus [of Habitat] is we want to create more mixed-income, mixed-use housing,” Reckford said, because it is important for social mobility. “…Children from families with low incomes who grow up in mixed- income communities, still have relatively high social mobility. Families growing up in concentrated poverty have almost no social mobility.”
In historically underserved communities, building mixed-income housing can also reduce or avoid the risk of displacement to existing residents. Reckford used the example of a development in Charlottesville, Virginia, which grew out of a partnership with the city and residents of a trailer park. “They redeveloped the trailer park, increased the density, and guaranteed that nobody would be displaced. So, they created a mixed- income [community]…made sure there was affordable rental and made sure the residents weren’t kicked out.”
Reckford recommended “build[ing] more density along transit in the main corridors” and simultaneously lowering the barriers (such as voucher non-acceptance and zoning laws) to move to communities of opportunity, “so if people wanted to move to another community, they actually could.”
3: Preserve existing affordable housing stock
Habitat’s policy agenda includes preserving existing affordable homes, and Reckford highlighted the Neighborhood Homes Investment Act (NHIA). The NHIA is designed to solve an affordability problem common in cities and rural areas, where, as Reckford explained, “you could buy a house for a relatively reasonable amount,” but then bringing it up to code “will cost more than it will appraise for after the investment.” The NHIA “would [create] a tax credit, leveraging the private sector to be able to close the gap between what it costs to rehab a home and its appraisal in terms of valuation.” Reckford was confident that, if enacted, the NHIA would preserve and even create large quantities of good-quality housing.
Reckford noted a few other federal programs that can be used to rehabilitate and expand existing stock: the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and a rural housing loan program, USDA’s Section 502.
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