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Why Affordable Housing Could Become Harder To Find

Jan 9, 2018
Originally published on January 11, 2018 8:05 am

Poor families in the United States are having an increasingly difficult time finding an affordable place to live, due to high rents, static incomes and a shortage of housing aid. Tenant advocates worry that the new tax bill, as well as potential cuts in housing aid, will make the problem worse.

An estimated 11 million families in the U.S. now pay more than half their income on rent, a number that has grown steadily as the supply of affordable housing shrinks. The result, say tenant advocates, is that some people are forced to choose between paying for rent or other necessities, such as food and medicine.

But landlords says tenants' failure to pay their rent only adds to the affordable housing shortage. Without rental income, it's hard for landlords to pay their mortgages or other bills, says Heiner Giese, a Milwaukee landlord and an attorney for the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin.

Giese showed the impact in a tour of one neighborhood in the north side of the city, made up of modest single-family homes and duplexes. Almost every block had an empty lot or two, where houses had been torn down. Many of the homes still standing were boarded up, and a few burned out.

Giese says he's sympathetic to families that don't have enough money to pay the rent — even when it's only about $700-900 on average — but he says all sides are being squeezed.

"It's obviously very difficult for the tenants," he says. "It's very difficult for the landlords also because it's stressful and ultimately the landlords lose money."

And if they lose enough, he says, that's one less affordable place to live.

It's a big problem in this area. The U.S. Census has estimated that more than 50,000 families in Milwaukee County spent more than half their income on housing in 2016.

It's a problem across the country.

"There is no county in the U.S. where you can work a minimum wage job and afford a two-bedroom apartment," says Rob Dicke, executive director of the housing authority in nearby Dane County, home of Madison, the state capitol.

Dicke says the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in his county is $1,091 a month. He calculates that with a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, it would require someone to have three full-time minimum wage jobs to be able to afford such a place.

He says the county would need to create 1,000 new affordable housing units every year, for the next 25 years, to keep up with demand. But no one expects that to happen.

Dicke and other housing advocates fear that the tax law signed by President Trump last month could make matters worse. They argue that by lowering tax rates, it will make Low-Income Housing Tax Credits — used by developers to finance construction of affordable housing — less attractive.

Housing subsidies for renters could also be at risk. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan has been eager to impose work requirements and time limits on federal housing aid.

"People want able bodied people who are on welfare to go to work. They want us to get people out of poverty, into the workforce," he told Fox News last month. "That's good for them, that's good for the economy, that's good for the federal budget."

President Trump threw some cold water on that proposal this past weekend, saying that any welfare changes would need Democratic support, which is highly unlikely. Still, the Trump administration has proposed cutting billions of dollars in housing aid for low-income families. And Congress is under pressure to reduce spending because of growing deficits.

Susan Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute says, as it is, there isn't enough housing aid to go around.

"Only one in five households in the country who are eligible for assistance actually get it," she says.

And Popkin thinks those numbers could get worse. She notes that most rental housing built today is for the high-end market, not for low- and middle-income families.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has said that more affordable housing might be funded in a new infrastructure bill, but Popkin is not optimistic.

"Everything that is coming out of this Congress, and this administration, is about cuts and shrinking, and moving people off and right now, I worry there's nowhere for them to go," she says.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Poor families in the United States are having a hard time finding affordable places to live. Tenant advocates worry that the problem could get worse under the new tax law, along with potential cuts in housing aid. NPR's Pam Fessler recently went to Wisconsin, where the supply of affordable housing is getting squeezed.

HEINER GIESE: If you look at this huge vacant lot, this was all occupied at one time.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Heiner Giese is driving around an old neighborhood on the north side of Milwaukee past modest single-family homes and duplexes. But almost every block also has a few empty lots, and many of the houses that are still standing are boarded up, waiting to be torn down or worse.

GIESE: Yeah. This place burned right here to the next. This place burned, I think.

FESSLER: Giese is a local landlord. He says in recent years, many other landlords have lost or abandoned houses here because they can't pay their mortgage and other bills.

GIESE: I don't know what this is here. This one says for sale.

FESSLER: He says it's especially hard for landlords to maintain these houses if tenants get behind on their rent. And that's a big problem around here. A recent census found that more than 50,000 families in Milwaukee County had to spend more than half their income on housing. And that's increasingly the case for low-income families nationwide as the stock of affordable housing shrinks.

ROB DICK: There is no county in the U.S. where you can work a minimum wage job and afford a two-bedroom apartment.

FESSLER: Rob Dick runs the housing authority in nearby Dane County, home of Madison, the state capital. Average rent for a small apartment there is almost $1,100 a month. So he does the math.

DICK: Seven twenty-five times 40 times four...

FESSLER: And comes up with this.

DICK: Three minimum wage jobs full time can't afford a two-bedroom in Dane County.

FESSLER: Dick says the county needs to build a thousand new affordable units a year to keep up with demand, but that there's no way that's going to happen. And he fears the new tax law will make matters worse. Lower tax rates mean credits used to encourage developers to build affordable housing are less attractive. On top of that, subsidies for renters are also at risk. House Speaker Paul Ryan has been eager to impose work requirements and time limits on federal housing aid, which he spoke about recently on Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL RYAN: People want able-bodied people who are on welfare to go to work. They want us to get people out of poverty, into the workforce. That's good for them. That's good for the economy. It's good for the federal budget.

FESSLER: President Trump threw some cold water on that proposal this past weekend, saying that any welfare changes would need Democratic support, which is highly unlikely. Still, the Trump administration has proposed cutting billions of dollars in housing aid for low-income families, and Congress is under pressure to reduce spending because of growing deficits. Sue Popkin of the Urban Institute says as it is, there isn't enough housing aid to go around.

SUSAN POPKIN: Only 1 in 5 households in the country who are eligible for assistance actually get it.

FESSLER: And Popkin thinks those numbers could get worse. She notes that most rental housing built today is for the high-end market, not for low and middle-income families. U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson has said that more affordable housing might be funded in a new infrastructure bill, but Popkin is not optimistic.

POPKIN: Everything that is coming out of this Congress and this administration is about cuts and shrinking and moving people off. And right now, I worry there's nowhere for them to go.

FESSLER: Heiner Giese, the landlord, is also worried and thinks some government or nonprofit help is needed. He understands that some people just don't have enough money to pay the rent, but he says all sides are being pressured.

GIESE: It's obviously very difficult for the tenants. It's very difficult for the landlords also because it's stressful. And ultimately, the landlords lose money.

FESSLER: And if they lose enough, he says, that's one less affordable place to live. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.