Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: Housing crisis needs a federal solution

by Joanna DiStefano

Housing is expensive in Morgantown.  Whether you’re renting or paying a mortgage or currently unhoused, unaffordability is a fact of life for most people who live here.  Today, as we celebrate Independence Day, it is undeniable that the housing reality here in our community is a reflection of an ongoing national housing crisis, a crisis experienced keenly among renters. 

Simply put, wages have not kept pace with rising rents, and a short supply of available rental units nationwide has only made the situation worse.  The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports  currently there is no state or county in the United States where a renter working full-time at minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment. 

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 24 million people in 11 million low-income American households pay more than half their income for rent, often forgoing necessities, like food or medicine, to stay in their homes.

However, less than half, 10.4 million people in 5.2 million households, are actually using some form of federal rental assistance to afford modest housing. Sixty-eight percent of those renters are seniors, children, or people with disabilities. And because of the legacy of discriminatory housing policies, this is a burden that falls more often on people of color: The NHLIC estimates that although 6% of white households are extremely low-income renters, 20% of Black households, 18% of American Indian or Alaska Native households and 14% of Latino households are extremely low-income renters.

The primary federal program meant to address these inequalities, the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, which makes up the difference between what people earn and the reasonable cost of a safe and decent home, is not funded adequately to meet the need.

 Currently, more than 5 million people in 2.3 million low-income families use these vouchers to help pay for housing in the private market, according to CBPP. However, only 1 in 4 eligible renters is able to access this federal housing assistance.  That means roughly 75% of households that qualify for HCVs aren’t able to get them when they need them.  They can languish on waiting lists for months or years, all the while remaining vulnerable to many of the other ills of extreme poverty, like food insecurity, declining physical and mental health and homelessness. 

Though provisions for affordable housing were not included in the recent bipartisan Senate infrastructure deal reached this week, Congress should still consider several proposals over the summer for substantial long term affordable housing investment.  Any effort to address affordability for renters must also include a boost to the HCV program, for what good is any investment in development if people still lack the resources to rent? 

Sen. Joe Manchin  sets an admirable standard working with colleagues in the Senate to move economic recovery legislation forward.  As the work of Congress continues throughout the summer, affordable housing needs to be among his top priorities.

Expanding the supply of affordable housing while ensuring rental assistance to all eligible renters with guaranteed multi-year funding to the HCV program is a solid step in the right direction to address the housing crisis in the U.S.   Beyond being a just, equitable and sensible solution to stably house millions of families and start to undo the legacy of racial discrimination in housing, this provides a bridge to economic stability and generational prosperity to millions of Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Joanna DiStefano is the Program Manager for the Global Engagement Office at WVU Health Sciences and the leader of RESULTS WV, a movement of non-partisan grassroots advocates working to influence political decisions that will bring an end to both domestic and global poverty.