Congress is fighting over whether the $3.5 trillion proposal is going to get just a little trim or
a serious haircut. Most media reports and most Democrats list some combination
of the following benefits and investments the plan would bring: childcare,
universal pre-K, free community college, and more funding to address the
climate crisis. These are groundbreaking investments, for sure.
But one major issue is largely ignored: housing. Almost no coverage discusses the
750,000 housing vouchers to help prevent evictions and a rise in homelessness,
or the $80 billion to fix dangerously dilapidated public housing, which is the
country’s only supply of permanently affordable housing. Advocates are trying
to change that. On Wednesday, activists are holding protests
nationwide, including in Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s Brooklyn neighborhood,
to save funding for housing.
The vouchers would help staunch some of the bleeding of the
Supreme Court’s blow to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium
that would keep people in pandemic-ravaged communities in their homes. That fight
got huge coverage, but the impact of the budget debates on one of the most
pressing catastrophes we face has received little attention.
A friend of mine was homeless for years. During the
pandemic, with hotels shuttered, he got a room in a hotel instead of a very
expensive bed in a dangerous congregate shelter. And now he is no longer homeless because he
has an apartment, thanks to a housing voucher.
Sadly, his story is an unusual one. The homeless are largely the
evicted, and this nation has a massive eviction crisis we are failing to face
down if Congress doesn’t deliver on housing vouchers and investments. Housing
costs are a problem across race and states. Even before the pandemic, almost
four million people faced eviction proceedings each year. Today, according to the Center on Budget and Policy
10 million are at least one month behind on rent, and half of them believe
eviction proceedings are likely.
The funding to stem the tide and help people stay in their homes
and preserve affordable units helps everyone. But too many such households are Black, Latino, and headed by women. This is not surprising. In 2018, no
one working a full-time minimum wage job could afford a two-bedroom apartment
in practically any county in the country, and half of all renters were paying
more than what the federal government considers affordable.
Women of color are most likely to be in minimum wage jobs. Over
half of Black and Latino people in this country can’t afford
the rent compared to 42 percent of Asian and white people. While these are
staggering numbers, the Princeton Eviction Lab found that Blacks and Latinos,
particularly women, were more likely than their white counterparts to face
eviction proceedings. Federal help for low-income housing, particularly for the
very needy, is perceived as being about Blacks and Latinos because the need is
so great. So while white people benefit, 46 percent of housing vouchers go to
Black and Latino households, and two-thirds of public housing households are
Black and Latino. Don’t their lives matter?
It should be good politics to solve deep and shared problems
like housing affordability, but unfortunately the Biden administration has
treated rental assistance as separate from an affordable housing plan. That may
be a political mistake. Democrats should not forget Trump has weaponized this
nation’s tragic and preventable homeless crisis. Remember that even before the
pandemic, Trump attacked Democratic governors and
some Democratic mayors on the homeless rates in their states and cities,
suggesting that what was needed was a police crackdown. Homeless rates were
listed in the effort to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom from office.
It’s also a policy mistake to separate rental assistance from
affordability. The truth is that it is rising rents and stagnating wages that have
increased homeless rates. We need to build more affordable housing, but we
can’t build our way out of this crisis. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a plan that
would create another 20,000 units by 2027 for a problem that tens of millions
face. Therefore, the right policy approach includes rental assistance and
preserving affordable housing, like public housing, as well.
Another pressing issue is the living conditions faced by the nation’s
1.2 million residents of public housing. Build Back Better includes $80 million
to preserve funding to make the horribly crumbling housing livable. Will that
be cut, too?
Not only must Democrats in Congress recognize the humanitarian
and political benefits of stemming evictions and preserving public housing, but
state and local government must be bolder and create new ways of addressing
this inequality crisis. When I announced my candidacy for mayor of New York
City in October 2020, it was with a burning desire to make New York affordable
for its residents. After all, the pulse of this city, and communities around
the country, comes from its people. We are one of the most diverse cities in
the country, with 800 languages spoken here and all the cultural vibrancy that
creates. We are the home to hip-hop, as the Verzuz between Big Daddy Kane and
KRS-ONE showed. Diversity drives culture and attracts business and tourism, but
it also helps us contribute 8 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.
Losing our residents to high-end housing is an existential crisis. I proposed
to subsidize the rents for renters so that no one paid too much for housing, and
I would use federal bailout money and the cost savings from catastrophically
expensive welfare hotels to pay for it.
Vouchers and subsidies have their challenges. Only one in
four people eligible for vouchers actually gets one, and landlords often
discriminate against them, particularly if they are held by people of color.
And there is the issue of preventing landlords from price gouging the public
coffers because of subsidies. But these are good problems to have, which, when
faced, can be solved. Let’s start with a rigorous Build Back Better program that
includes an eviction-prevention and affordable housing strategy and show this
country that Democrats can get housing done.