by Paige Looney
It feels like the only thing we’re talking about is inflation — and for good reason. Americans are feeling the rising cost of inflation in every aspect of life, be it gasoline or groceries. Yet the primary driver of inflation has been left out of the conversation: housing.
People spend about a third of their budget on housing, making it the largest component of the Consumer Price Index, a popular measure of inflation. For West Virginians with incomes at or below the poverty level (a third of renters in our state), housing consumes 50% or more of their monthly budget. As a result, inflation quite literally hits hardest at home.
The housing market in America was volatile long before the pandemic, but due to the COVID-19 crisis, an estimated 12 million households in August 2020 were at risk of losing their homes without immediate government action. Fortunately, housing advocates and every level of government rose to the challenge, devoting significant resources and protections to keeping people housed.
Emergency rental assistance and eviction moratoriums during the pandemic were crucial, but they were always designed to be a temporary fix — duct tape over leaky pipes. As this aid expires, we’re left with even deeper fractures in America’s housing market, exacerbated by staggering inflation.
Rent rose an average of 14% last year and is predicted to rise another 10% this year. West Virginia is often praised for its low cost of living, and that’s true, but only when compared to other parts of the country. For so many people in our state, the cost of living feels higher and higher every day. If you’re a minimum wage worker in West Virginia, you’d have to work 55 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment — assuming you can find one. According to data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are only
61 affordable and available homes for every 100 extremely low-income renters in West Virginia. This housing shortage is nationwide. There is no state or Congressional district in the country with enough affordable housing to meet the demand.
The tragic but preventable reality of this housing crisis is that so many folks are at risk of homelessness, and our social safety net has more holes than ever. Public housing is rapidly deteriorating in West Virginia. Only one in four households eligible for rental assistance receive it. Federal investments are badly needed and long overdue.
A historic problem requires a historic response, and Congress has the unprecedented opportunity to do so. The Build Back Better Act is dead, but the Senate can still pass a comprehensive budget reconciliation bill. Sen. Manchin has been the last hold-out in reaching an agreement on the bill, often citing concerns over inflation. A three-pronged housing investment has to be a part of the solution, which could change the landscape of affordable housing in America and significantly ease the burden of rising inflation.
An effective budget reconciliation bill must include an expansion to rental assistance, funding to repair and preserve public housing and a robust investment the National Housing Trust Fund. This would increase our national housing stock and ensure that the lowest-income renters can access affordable housing and avoid the threat of homelessness. If housing investments are not included a budget reconciliation bill, we’ll still be scrambling to keep a roof over our heads for years to come.
The opportunity to pass any budget reconciliation package expires at the end of the fiscal year on Sep. 30. Time is running out. If Congress and Sen. Manchin want to address inflation in the long-term, they must to work to repair the cracked foundation of American housing, before the walls cave in around us.