Buried in the nearly 950-page Agriculture Act of 2014 – more commonly known as the farm bill – is a provision that is of great importance to the thousands of families who rely on the rural housing programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
This provision extends the current definition of what constitutes a “rural area” until the 2020 Census. Without this fix, the USDA would be forced to use 2010 Census data to determine program eligibility, resulting in more than 900 communities losing access to the range of grants, loans, and credit guarantees that have helped secure affordable housing for so many families in rural America. With the recent enactment of the farm bill, these communities are effectively grandfathered until the receipt of data from the next Census in 2020, just as the Housing Commission recommended in our report last year.
Recognizing the demographic changes that are taking place in rural America, the farm bill provision also appropriately increases the population limit for previously eligible communities from 25,000 to 35,000.
Persistently high poverty rates plague rural America, with nearly one-quarter of all people who live in poverty in the United States residing in rural communities. Despite this fact, the substantial housing needs of our nation’s rural families are too often ignored. Substandard housing is all too common in many rural communities. Housing affordability is also a significant problem. In fact, more than seven million families–or nearly 30 percent of all rural households – spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income just to cover housing costs.
Over the years, the USDA’s rural housing programs – ranging from the Section 502 Guaranteed Loan program that supports homeownership to the Section 521 Rental Assistance program – have proven their effectiveness at serving some of our nation’s most vulnerable rural households. So I am grateful that the farm bill preserves access to these programs for the thousands of rural families who would have lost this critical federal assistance absent congressional action. While a victory for small-town America, this debate has also been an important reminder that policymakers in Washington must continue to prioritize meeting our nation’s rural housing needs.