The Labyrinth of Housing Affordability

With just one number, U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming encapsulated the enormous challenge facing housing assistance: 160.

“We’ve built a bureaucracy of 160 overlapping federal housing programs at a time we need to change the focus to getting people into housing,” Enzi said Wednesday (September 16) as he chaired an online U.S. Senate Budget Committee roundtable examining federal housing assistance programs.

“A hundred-and-sixty programs, administered by 20 different federal agencies. … I am appalled at how little progress we’ve made,” he said.

“We appear to be an employment agency for thousands of federal workers. Competing regulations, duplication and turf protection keeps people from homes. Our goal isn’t to have more federal employees; it’s to get housing and homes for the millions.”

Enzi and two witnesses at the roundtable – Daniel Garcia-Diaz of the U.S. Government Accountability Office and Edgar Olsen, economics professor at the University of Virginia – argued it is excessively expensive to give developers construction tax credits and subsidies for low-income housing units.

That’s a popular approach in Atlanta, with developers “persuaded” to accept tax subsidies to build low-income housing. So is “inclusionary” zoning, in Atlanta and Decatur, that mandates a certain percentage of “affordable housing” in a development. The developer must make up for it elsewhere, however, which means costs rise for other buyers or tenants.

Garcia and Olsen both champion housing vouchers as far more cost-effective. Olsen noted the nation has 600,000 homeless and 3 million vacant housing units; if someone loses their job, he pointed out, it’s cheaper to increase the voucher temporarily than to build a housing unit.

Both agreed with Enzi that the federal approach is bloated, failing and in desperate need of streamlining. Despite spending “significant amounts,” Enzi said, the waits for public housing are years long. The amounts involved are staggering: $50 billion a year on low-income housing assistance, $2 trillion in home loans, and billions more in assistance through the tax code.

Worse is yet to come, unfortunately: The economic impact of pandemic restrictions, exacerbated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium on many evictions through the end of the year, could leave millions of Americans with balloon payments due on rent and mortgages, and possibly eviction then.

While Enzi’s first two witnesses championed consolidation and streamlining of the federal programs, his final witness, Diane Yentel of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, argued for more money: an immediate $100 billion in emergency rental assistance for renters and landlords.

It was another U.S. senator – the late Everett Dirksen – who is credited with coining the phrase, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

The roundtable’s focus on federal shortcomings are a stark reminder for Georgia to embrace creative, state-based, private-sector solutions. Opportunities exist for philanthropic partnerships with government and private-sector programs that facilitate homeownership, as discussed last month at the Foundation’s 2020 Georgia Legislative Policy Forum session on housing affordability.

A big challenge to leaving it to government – be it federal, state or local – is the mandates attached. And one of the biggest challenges to housing affordability is local government, whose finger on the scale, through zoning and design standards, hikes construction costs.

“High housing costs are a choice, and they are driven in great part by choices made by governments – especially local governments – to regulate and restrict their housing,” said Forum panelist Michael Hendrix of the Manhattan Institute.

“Freer housing markets are not only the right thing to do, but it’s the best way to get housing for your families and for our workforce and to help those struggling in Georgia to give them a range of housing types affordable to people from all backgrounds.”

Enzi’s comments seemed to echo Hendrix’s comments, even as he lambasted the federal programs: “I’ve been pleased at some of the unique efforts separate from Congress and the federal government,” Enzi said. Looking to Washington and taxpayer largesse, it seems, produces a time-consuming maze, when housing affordability solutions await us at home.

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