By: Muriel Bowser and Karen Freeman-Wilson
July 18, 2019 —
The United States has a housing crisis. Access to housing — particularly access to safe and affordable housing — continues to be a major concern across the nation, from our hometowns of Washington, D.C. to Gary, Ind., housing is the single biggest factor impacting economic mobility for working families.
Due to stagnant wages, rising real estate prices, higher interest rates and strict lending standards, housing has become a disproportionate expense for more and more working families. And not just for homeowners, but renters too.
Today, nearly 40 percent of households in the U.S. are rented, and of these households, half are “cost burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
This problem did not develop overnight and there is no silver bullet for fixing it. Solutions must be holistic. Local and federal leaders must address the role that decades of structural racism has played in creating segregated and inequitable communities. We must recognize the fact that in no state, metropolitan area, or county can a worker earning minimum wage and working a 40-hour week afford a two-bedroom rental.
To confront these challenges — in big cities and small towns, in blue states and red states — we must be intentional about ensuring that residents across the income spectrum can access and afford new and existing housing — housing that is both affordable and safe. In doing so, we can build stronger, more resilient communities with greater opportunities for investment and economic prosperity. To get there, we must invest more in the tools that are already working and create new tools to tackle new and long-standing challenges.
In Washington, D.C., for example, we continue to make big investments in our affordable housing and homebuyer programs.
In 2015, we doubled our annual investment in our Housing Production Trust Fund to $100 million — more per capita than any state or city in the nation. We also created and funded a Housing Preservation Fund. Most importantly, we got that money out the door and into projects that helped us build or preserve more than 7,200 affordable homes in four years.
To achieve big results, we are setting big goals. By 2025 Washington, D.C. needs to add 36,000 new homes, with at least 12,000 of those units affordable. So, in May, I signed the District’s first Mayor’s Order on housing, directing District agencies to analyze housing trends and to identify policies that will get us there.
In Gary, our focus is on identifying and addressing underutilized properties. The Gary Counts initiative, has inventoried more than 58,000 parcels, leading to the identification of more than 25,000 empty lots and 6,500 vacant buildings. The goal of this initiative is to help decide on whether we need to redevelop these properties or demolish them to make room for new housing, parks or other public amenities.
To identify other best practices and policies from across the nation, the National League of Cities (NLC) brought together 20 local leaders to form the NLC Housing Task Force. Together, we examined the causes of the housing crisis and published a report, “Homeward Bound: The Road to Affordable Housing,” [nlc.org] where we spotlight innovative solutions being implemented locally and put forth a set of policy recommendations to support millions in need of adequate housing.
Cities cannot do this work alone. Eighty percent of voters believe Congress should “take major action” to make housing more affordable for low-income families. We agree. This crisis is affecting the quality of life for people throughout our nation, and the time to act is now.
All levels of government need to face this challenge head-on.
The federal government must step up, treat our nation’s housing needs seriously, and recognize that housing is infrastructure. Federal programs — such as HUD’s HOME and Community Development Block Grant (CDGB) programs — are critical to serving the needs of our most vulnerable residents.
We also encourage Congress to consider a renter tax credit to expand the availability of federal rental assistance in the form of a refundable tax credit targeted to lower-income, rent-burdened households and fix the market for small-dollar mortgage lending and entry-level homeownership that is virtually nonexistent.
A safe and stable home is the first step to a safe and stable life. National and local leaders must come together and act with urgency to implement innovative solutions that address our nation’s housing crisis.
Muriel Bowser is the mayor of Washington, D.C., and chair of National League of Cities’ Housing Task force. Karen Freeman-Wilson is the mayor, Gary, Ind., and president of National League of Cities.