Opinion

Look outside Washington for housing policies after the coronavirus

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The coronavirus is posing unprecedented challenges to our nation's housing policies. Just at the time when the home is now the center of life for most Americans, the numbers of homeless Americans are growing and millions of families are not sure how they are going to make next month's mortgage or rent payment.

As summer progresses and we begin to turn our focus to an economic recovery from COVID-19, so too must we adapt our nation's housing policies to new challenges. The coronavirus crisis has exposed the toll the affordable housing crisis has taken on our economic health, as well as the need for fresh solutions and approaches to housing our nation's families that are under economic pressure.

The federal government — and the Department of Housing and Urban Development — can and should continue to play an important role in meeting our nation's affordable housing challenges. This is being done through existing programs like public housing and Section 8 that provide rental assistance to millions of low-income families, seniors, and disabled persons and block grants like CDBG and HOME that give billions to states and localities for housing and community development.

However, as is often the case, the best ideas and solutions for addressing our affordable housing challenges come not from Washington, but from what is happening in our local communities. Our post-COVID housing policies should reflect and amplify what is working in these local communities.

A good example is a holistic approach to meeting needs of low income renters through resident servicers. National CORE's distinctive approach to affordable housing is to provide wraparound services for the low-income residents we serve. Resident-based services help families achieve self-sufficiency, address health care challenges, expand educational and after-school opportunities, and help seniors deal with challenges of aging. During the coronavirus crisis, we have found that the services National CORE provides have been critical in providing a lifeline to the outside world for our residents that have been sheltering in place.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson is to be commended for the priority he has placed on breaking down silos between the agency and other federal programs that provide services. However, what is needed is a new federal program to utilize the economies of scale in serving residents in assisted housing. We should not just house low-income families, we should also give them the tools to enrich their lives and achieve economic self-sufficiency.

Similarly, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has talking about innovative ways to use Medicaid dollars for housing. Homeless families are a strain on Medicaid spending, often using expensive visits to emergency rooms as their main source of health care. More use of targeted Medicaid waivers for housing for the homeless is a win/win — less spending on Medicaid and better housed families.

There is also a consensus that additional resources are needed to build more affordable housing. As part of the next coronavirus response bill Congress should enact "The Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act of 2019," bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sens. Todd Young, R-Ind., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and then-Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and in the House by Reps. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., Kenny Marchant, R-Texas, Don Beyer, D-Va., and Jackie Walorski, R-Ind. This legislation would increase the volume of housing tax credits, to build 550,000 new affordable housing units over the next decade and create construction jobs in the process.

But there are other barriers besides resources we must address to provide more affordable housing — such as exclusionary zoning and other practices that deter affordable housing. We should also reduce unnecessary regulations (however well-intentioned) that drive up development costs, making housing less affordable.

Finally, I am heartened that Congress is taking a look at an approach that I participated in two decades ago as a member of the Millennial Housing Commission. Bipartisan and identical bills — S. 1772 introduced by Sen. Young and H.R. 3211 introduced by Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., — would establish a Task Force on the Impact of the Affordable Housing Crisis. The Task Force would be composed of 18 outside experts — individuals from across the country, including academic researchers, affordable housing policy experts, and individuals with experience in government affordable housing programs.

The goal would be an approach to housing that emphasizes lessons learned in local communities and innovative efforts that housing providers are already successfully implementing in those communities.

COVID-19 is a great challenge, but also a great opportunity. The time is now to improve housing policies, to ensure that our recovery from the coronavirus does not leave low-income Americans behind.

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Affordable housing Housing affordability HUD Multifamily Coronavirus Economy
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