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America’s Housing Crisis Is a Disaster. Let’s Treat It Like One.

In responding to the pandemic, state and local governments quickly put in place new program infrastructure to distribute housing aid with flexibility and expediency. We need to build on that for the future.

The Renaissance at West River in Tampa, Fla., is the first apartment complex to be completed in the West River urban renewal project. The six-story, 160-unit complex is a part of Tampa's commitment to provide 10,000 affordable housing units by 2027.
(Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times/TNS)
As the pandemic surged across America, Congress and the White House made available more than $75 billion to support at-risk renters and homeowners, and even more in flexible relief funds that could be used for housing aid. This funding was desperately needed to prevent widespread evictions and foreclosures that might have resulted from the economic impacts of COVID-19.

But aside from the sheer size of these federal funds, they were different from typical housing aid in an important way that deserves attention: They were framed as disaster relief and were deployed rapidly as a disaster response. A crisis can describe something that is long-standing and intractable; a disaster — like a hurricane, flood or wildfire — requires an immediate and urgent response.

The housing programs that state and local governments have rolled out to distribute these new funds over the past year and a half have represented a stark divergence from traditional, decades-old housing approaches, and have brought together housing and disaster recovery experts to build and sustain them. Now that we have started to view and respond to America’s housing instability crisis as a disaster, one thing is clear: We cannot go back to the way we funded housing before; otherwise, we’ll simply return to the pre-pandemic status quo.

Before COVID-19, America already had a shortage of nearly seven million affordable homes. There was not a single state or county where someone working full time at a minimum-wage job could afford a two-bedroom apartment. In 2019, nearly half of all renter households were “cost-burdened,” meaning that they had to spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. In 2016, there were nearly 900,000 eviction judgments in the U.S., meaning one in about every 50 renter households was at risk of being removed from their home. Only one in every four households that were eligible for housing vouchers were able to get them, due to insufficient federal funding. This left an estimated nine and a half million families on often-years-long voucher waitlists.

Despite these severe and growing challenges, federal housing aid had been steadily declining before the pandemic. By 2019, funding for Community Development Block Grants, one of the largest federal housing programs, had fallen by nearly 50 percent since 1995 and by 77 percent since the 1970s. Other federal programs for public housing, housing for the elderly, and for persons with disabilities also declined between 2010 and 2020.

That changed dramatically as the pandemic’s economic impact turned our world upside down. In last year’s CARES Act and Appropriations Act and this year’s American Rescue Plan, Congress and the White House made unprecedented amounts of funding available to help at-risk renters and homeowners. And state and local governments were expected to rapidly get those funds into the hands of those who needed them. Policies were relaxed and new rules allowed for more flexible approaches, such as alternative ways of qualifying recipients through self-attestation instead of requiring complex paperwork.

By framing these new dollars as disaster relief, policymakers took an approach that required state and local governments to strike a balance between appropriate safeguards to prevent misuse of funds and the need for flexibility and expediency. This balance was nothing new for those in the disaster recovery space, and many government agencies brought on disaster recovery specialists to help them roll out these housing aid programs.

These housing funds required massive program infrastructure to be built in the form of new data systems, thousands of trained staff and new processes to help millions of tenants and homeowners apply for billions of dollars. As a result, state and county governments and their consultants have built a powerful new network of housing-aid delivery systems across the U.S. This kind of rapid infrastructure development and deployment is standard practice in disaster recovery, but had to be adapted to the unique, ground-level challenges of distributing aid for housing.

As Congress now debates the inclusion of $150 billion for affordable-housing aid in the Build Back Better Act, it’s important to recognize — and build on — this shift. We need to acknowledge that housing instability is truly a disaster that threatens the fabric of our nation. And we need to recognize that this disaster will not end when the health and economic impacts of the pandemic are behind us.

The way we have funded housing solutions during the pandemic was correct. We must continue to provide the magnitude of funds necessary to house our families. We need to continue to invest and strengthen the new infrastructure that we built during the pandemic to distribute aid, because we’re going to need it again. And we need to simultaneously hone our rapid response while also working on addressing the complex, underlying roots of the problem. It’s not going to be easy to deal with America’s housing instability crisis, but an important step forward will be to continue to view it as the disaster that it is.

Gregory Heller is a director and affordable-housing subject matter expert at Guidehouse, a management-consulting firm. Previously he was executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, where he ran the city’s COVID-19 emergency rental assistance program.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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