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Why We Need More Public Investment in Home Repairs

Housing deterioration is a serious problem for lower-income households. Home repairs address deep-seated racial and environmental injustices, and substandard housing can be a matter of life and death.

A home under repair in St. Louis.
A home under repair in St. Louis. (Rebuilding Together St. Louis)
While baby boomers have ensured that the aging of the population has received widespread media and policy attention, the aging of our housing stock has been largely overlooked. According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, the median age of owner-occupied homes in the United States was 41 years in 2021. In many central cities, over two-thirds of the homes were built before 1940. Homes that are more than 80 years old are costly to maintain, and major systems like heating and cooling often need to be replaced or upgraded.

The de facto affordable-housing policy of the United States is to stimulate the production of new housing for higher-income households, largely on the suburban fringe, and then let the older housing they leave behind filter down to lower-income households. The vast majority of lower-income families do not live in subsidized housing but in older, private-market homes. In effect, this housing must deteriorate to the point that it is affordable.

The chickens of our trickle-down approach are now coming home to roost, underlining the need to significantly increase public investment in helping lower-income residents keep their homes in good repair.

Researchers have linked deteriorated housing to a wide range of physical and mental health problems, including asthma and depression. Substandard housing is also associated with crime, social isolation, financial hardship and neighborhood instability.

Housing deterioration is literally a matter of life and death. One of the most common problems in older homes is faulty electrical wiring. According to the National Fire Protection Association, between 2015 and 2019 on average 390 civilians died each year from fires caused by faulty wiring, with $1.5 billion in annual property damage.

Inadequate weatherization and air conditioning are other common problems that have become more urgent with the increased likelihood of heat waves due to global warming. Air conditioning is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity, especially in southern cities like Phoenix, which recently broke the record with 19 consecutive days of temperatures exceeding 110 degrees; so far this year, at least 18 deaths in surrounding Maricopa County have been attributed to such extreme heat. Older people and those living alone are especially vulnerable. One week in the summer of 1995, 739 Chicago residents died during a heat wave.

Despite the seriousness of the problem, we invest little in public funds in home repair. The biggest housing subsidy program, the federal tax deduction for home mortgage interest, stimulates home purchases but does little for home repairs; you can deduct the interest on a home purchase loan but not on a home repair loan. The Community Development Block Grant, the main federal source of home repair funds, has shrunk by about 75 percent (controlling for inflation) from its peak in the late 1970s. Subsidized home repairs have been left to an underfunded patchwork of public, private and philanthropic agencies.

An Invisible Problem

Housing deterioration has not received the attention it deserves partly because it is mostly invisible to the public. You can see a collapsing porch or broken window, but you can’t see the child sickened by black mold or the elderly couple suffering from heatstroke. There is no way to determine the extent of housing deterioration and the cost of needed home repairs short of sending inspectors into every home, which of course would be prohibitively expensive.

Recently, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and PolicyMap used the American Housing Survey to devise a national estimate of $126.9 billion in needed home repairs. Building on the insight of that study — that home repairs can be estimated based on people’s experience of their home — researchers at the University of Missouri — St. Louis developed a questionnaire that identifies 43 repair scenarios, which we then costed out using a national database adjusted for local conditions.

Based on a survey of 583 older homeowners in St. Louis, our results were eye-opening. (Our report and a toolkit for using our methodology are available at CIAC Home Repair.) The average age of the homes was 97 years, and the average cost of unmet home repairs was $13,023. The total cost of all needed home repairs for older homeowners in St. Louis was $302 million.

We also found that the burden of housing deterioration was unevenly distributed, with the lowest-income households facing the highest home repair costs and Black homeowners reporting needed repairs costing more than twice that of white homeowners ($17,904 versus $7,832). Confined to particular neighborhoods by racist housing laws earlier in the 20th century, Black homeowners have little home equity they can tap to fund repairs. Home repair is a matter of racial and environmental injustice.

Promising Early Efforts

Cities are beginning to address the urgent need for home repairs. In St. Louis, we used our study to jump-start the formation of the Home Repair Network, a coalition of home repair providers. They devised a policy reform agenda that includes a centralized application and referral process, as well as efforts to coordinate home repairs with wraparound social services modeled on Baltimore’s Housing Upgrades to Benefit Seniors program. This year, St. Louis invested an additional $1.2 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds in its Healthy Home Repair Program, doubling the number of homes repaired from the year before.

In 2022, Pennsylvania appropriated $125 million for its Whole-Home Repair Program, which provides up to $50,000 to repair, upgrade and adapt a home. The program also includes funding for training and pre-apprenticeship programs to build up the local workforce to meet the increased demand for home repairs. Building up the capacity of the home repair system will be crucial if we are going to address the problem at scale.

Greater public investments in home repairs are a way to move public policy upstream to invest in prevention rather than waiting until problems are entrenched. Home repairs are an investment in public health, in stabilizing neighborhoods and in preserving household wealth. They also address longstanding racial and environmental injustices. The time to act is now.

The Des Lee Professor of Community Collaboration and Public Policy Administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Todd Swanstrom is the co-author of Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century (2014) and The Changing American Neighborhood: the Meaning of Place in the Twenty-First Century (2023). He uses the resources of his endowed professorship to support the St. Louis Anchor Action Network, a coalition of 16 anchor institutions dedicated to revitalizing disinvested local communities.

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