Housing PolicyNov 02 2023
Housing Policy in the United States 4th Edition
Affordable housing is a central concern for cities, metropolitan areas, and neighborhoods. Many governments define affordable housing by requiring that new buildings include apartments for low-income households or providing subsidies to households that are below the official government benchmark of paying 30 percent of their income on housing.
These precise thresholds are arbitrary, and different families have very different needs. But they do help guide public policy efforts.
The Role of the State
Millions of families struggle to afford decent housing. They pay unsustainable rents and often work multiple jobs to try to keep up with rising costs. Some families lose their homes to foreclosure or end up living in substandard or unsafe conditions.
State and local policymakers must address the barriers that prevent families from accessing affordable housing, such as zoning restrictions and high construction costs. For example, expanding the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit to allow rental prices affordable to families with incomes well below the program’s current limits would help reduce costs and make it easier for nonprofit and for-profit home builders to build new units.
Policies that improve the circumstances of households struggling to afford housing include the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and housing vouchers, subsidies for for-sale homes, inclusionary zoning, and reduction of regulatory barriers to home construction. To promote these policies, public awareness of the health impacts of housing affordability is critical.
The Role of the Private Sector
In recent decades, government has increasingly shifted responsibility for housing provision to private actors. This trend is most visible in programs providing housing appeal regimes, which allow developers to challenge exclusionary zoning in exchange for extra development rights. These systems are a form of social housing, and they reflect state attempts to shape the bargaining outcomes of private developers and localities.
A less obvious element of the change is the increased reliance on mortgage-backed securities to finance subsidized low-income housing. This change reflects a belief that the securities would improve market efficiency, although contemporaries’ confidence in this innovation misreads the nature of the mortgage market and overstated its potential to increase affordable homeownership.
Alex Schwartz is Professor of Policy Analysis and Community Development at the Milano School and Director of the Urban Policy Lab, where his teams of graduate students advise city agencies and nonprofit organizations on a range of public policy issues. His research centers on housing and community development and has appeared in Cityscape, Economic Development Quarterly, Housing Policy Debate, and Housing Studies.
The Role of the Nonprofit Sector
The non-market sector is key to housing policy because it builds and operates housing that is affordable for low-income households. This is a crucial role in an economy that increasingly relies on people with very low incomes to support businesses and consumers.
Non-market developers face similar challenges as market developers when they try to create affordable housing projects. But they must also navigate municipal approval processes that often create barriers to affordability and financial viability. For example, municipal building codes that require higher standards increase project costs and limit the ability to make projects financially feasible. The uncertainty that comes from vocal opponents or unpredictable Council decisions also increases the risk to a project’s success.
Policymakers need to address the range of issues that affect housing, including: mortgage financing; access rules and priorities; rent subsidies, whether project-based (rent geared to income) or portable (housing benefits/allowance); supply balancing and demand management; and neighborhood revitalization and investment. These are areas of responsibility that fall across all three orders of government, making intergovernmental coordination essential to a well-functioning social housing system.
The Role of the Media
The complexities of housing policy in the United States are reflected in the wide range of materials presented in this book. The book’s extensive coverage of federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal policies and laws demonstrates how the three orders of government work both independently and in tandem to shape the American housing landscape.
The book examines housing-related topics such as the foreclosure crisis, tenant rights and litigation, and neighborhood revitalization, among other issues. This edition of the book includes a completely revised section on urban redevelopment, and a comprehensive look at Kelo v. City of New London and its aftermath.
Given the adverse health impacts associated with severe housing burden, it may be important for public health professionals to promote and support policy efforts that mitigate this growing issue. This could be done by communicating with and raising awareness about the connections between housing affordability and public health. Moreover, future research could investigate how discourse about affordable housing in the media and political arenas can help to build broad-based support for such efforts.