Affordable housing is poised to have a big year. It’s a political issue at the intersection of inequality, infrastructure and government infighting at the national and local levels. But what exactly are we referring to when we talk about affordable housing? Affordable housing policy is a mishmash of federal and city agencies and programs, a complex web of words and numbers. A little primer might come in handy to stay on top of what’s to come.
Affordable housing is already a nationwide crisis — every county in the country has too little housing for extremely low-income households — and home ownership is perhaps the number one driver of racial inequality nationwide. Because housing agencies are often murkily controlled by both state and local governments, they are likely to become battlefields in the growing urban-rural cultural divide, and funding for affordable housing programs is likely to become a hot-button issue. Here, we break down some of the major federal and local programs and terms that are likely to come up when reading up.
Pruitt-Igoe, an early housing project that became the emblem of failed modernist housing developments; photo courtesy Pruitt-Igoe.com
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) (Federal)
The origins of America’s affordable housing program go back to the Great Depression, but the country’s modern programs took shape under Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs and Civil Rights legislation. Today, HUD oversees federal affordable housing programs, urban revitalization projects and homeowners assistance programs like the Government National Mortgage Association, popularly known as Ginnie Mae. A disproportionate majority of federal housing funds actually goes to wealthy homeowners for mortgage subsidies, not to low-income renters. While it’s unlikely — but entirely possible — that the Trump administration would discontinue major HUD affordable housing programs, it is very likely that they will defund or scale them back. This means that state and local governments will be left to either pick up the slack or let standards fall further.
Although public housing started at the federal level during the Great Depression, there haven’t been any federally managed housing projects for decades, and HUD does not manage any public housing developments itself. Instead, it helps thousands of local Housing Agencies across the country build and manage projects, and it provides housing subsidies directly to private individuals through programs like Section 8.
Section 8 (Federal)
Section 8 and Hope VI are two of HUD’s marquee affordable housing programs. Section 8 (named for being Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937) is a system of housing vouchers for low-income homeowners’ and renters’ assistance. In order to qualify, applicants must make less than a certain percentage of local median income and are obligated to pay a certain portion of their income toward housing. Landlords are not required to accept Section 8 vouchers, and many will not, but some landlords specifically target Section 8 vouchers because the government money is a reliable income stream, and such developments are often known as Section 8 housing.
HOPE VI development by the nonprofit Community Builders, designed by Torti Gallas + Partners, City West, Cincinnati, Ohio; image courtesy Congress for the New Urbanism
HOPE VI (Federal)
HOPE VI began in the 1990s as a way to fix broken and decaying public housing projects. By the Clinton era, the common image of public housing had congealed into the stereotype of bleak, crumbling inner-city towers riddled with gangs and drugs, and HUD leaders wanted to change that. They developed a new program, HOPE VI, that adopted the principles of New Urbanism to upgrade, demolish or revamp old projects. New Urbanism is a somewhat controversial reactionary architectural movement that wants to undo many of what it considers to be the failures of modern architecture. Instead of progressive or experimental forms or urban layouts, New Urbanism espouses traditional neighborhoods that mimic familiar architectural styles.
The resulting developments often have a Disney-esque, squeaky-clean quality (Seaside, Florida, New Urbanism’s flagship city, was where “The Truman Show” was filmed), but proponents claim that HOPE VI developments are more humane and policeable than the monstrous towers of yore. HOPE VI housing isn’t easily recognizable and doesn’t fit the stereotypical idea of what affordable housing looks like — and that’s exactly the point. Rather than segregating low-income households from the rest of society, HOPE VI developments are meant to blend into existing cities and provide homes for a range of incomes.
A diagram attempting to explain LIHTC’s convoluted structure; courtesy Forbes
Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) (Federal)
LIHTC is the federal government’s primary tool for creating affordable housing and is the only one that might (and that’s a very cautious might) expand under the Trump administration. That’s because, unlike Section 8 and HOPE IV where the government spends money providing subsidies, LIHTC is a tax credit for developers and investors in affordable housing. Established under the Reagan administration, the credit is notoriously convoluted, but it inevitably provides tax cuts for affordable housing developers. Some estimates say that LIHTC is responsible for 90 percent of privately developed low-income housing across the country. Trump has said that his giant infrastructure plan will be funded mostly through tax credits, so there is a chance that LIHTC will be maintained or expanded in the new administration.
Sign advertising housing discrimination; photo courtesy Atlanta Black Star
Housing discrimination protests; photo courtesy Wayne State University
Fair Housing (Federal)
Fair Housing isn’t a program per se, but is a principle established by the Fair Housing Act, which was a component of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968. The act made it illegal for landlords and home buyers and sellers to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status or national origin. Housing discrimination was rampant in the United States throughout much of the 20th century, even officially sanctioned by the government. In a practice known as “redlining,” the federal government would map minority neighborhoods and declare them unfit places to provide home loans to potential buyers.
Housing discrimination is still common today, and the Obama administration instituted a new rule in 2015 that required cities to provide and analyze data proving that they were making efforts to combat racial segregation. Unsettlingly, as reported in the Washington Post, almost a third of white Americans believe that racial discrimination in housing should be legal. The presumed HUD secretary under Trump, Ben Carson, has written an op-ed in the Washington Times decrying the rule, calling it a form of social engineering. This may not be a surprise, considering that Trump was once sued by the Justice Department for violating the Fair Housing Act as a young developer in his father’s business.
NYCHA project in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the neighborhood with the highest concentration of public housing in the country; photo courtesy NYDailyNews.com
Housing Agencies (Local)
Housing Agencies are the thousands of local organizations that build and maintain all government-managed public housing. Most of what are commonly understood to be public housing or ‘projects’ are owned by local housing authorities. Over 3,000 agencies exist across the country, and all are controlled at the state or city levels, making affordable housing one of the most important policy issues for local governments. Control of these agencies is often murkily shared by cities and states, making them a potential battleground between increasingly polarized progressive cities and more-conservative state governments.
The country’s largest housing authorities, like the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) or the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), are probably familiar to locals, but there are many smaller authorities spread across smaller cities and towns. Tenants can apply through their local authority, and eligibility criterions vary by location. Almost all are underfunded and have long wait-lists.
Protest for Inclusionary Zoning in New York City; photo courtesy Epoch Times
Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) (Local)
To pick up the shortfalls left by underfunded housing agencies, many states and cities are looking for alternative ways of encouraging low-income development. Inclusionary Zoning mandates that all new market-rate developments include a certain percentage of units set aside for lower-income tenants. IZ puts the burden of paying for affordable housing on developers, relying on high market-rate rents to subsidize the affordable units. Because rents have to be high enough to offset the cost of providing the affordable units, IZ has mostly been pursued in places with astronomical land values like New York City, parts of California and Massachusetts.
By-Right Development/As-of-Right Development (Local)
By-right development, or as-of-right development, refers to a practice where proposed affordable housing projects that comply with local zoning laws automatically get approved for development without having to go through the normal public review process. In most places, proposed developments have to go through a long and convoluted ordeal where local neighborhood councils and residents have the chance to respond to the project and potentially slow it down or even block it.
By-right development means that any affordable development that meets basic zoning criteria can automatically be approved. California has some exceptionally strong public review demands, including particularly stringent environmental impact reviews. Many of those reviews are used by wealthy and powerful communities to slow or stop new affordable developments in their jurisdiction. In that particular state, this has created a dynamic where predominantly white wealthy cities are blocking affordable housing that would primarily cater to minority residents, and Governor Jerry Brown tried, and failed, to pass By-Right Development privileges for affordable housing projects.
Needless to say, all of these programs are controversial, and their futures are uncertain, now more than ever. Hopefully architects and urbanists can help everyone else get a better handle on what affordable housing actually means and what can be done to solve it. The future of millions of Americans depends on it.