Access to affordable housing is one of the thorniest challenges facing American cities. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are homeless; millions more struggle to keep up with housing costs that are rising faster than incomes; racial segregation keeps minorities out of neighborhoods with the most amenities and opportunities. The problems are myriad, and governments have struggled to keep up. Under President Obama, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) pushed for desegregation across the country, adopting new rules that required cities to prove that they were economically and racially integrating communities in order to continue receiving federal funds. America is now facing the new reality of a Donald Trump presidency.
Change is certainly coming, but what kind of change, exactly, is difficult to tell. Trump is not known for producing detailed plans, and despite being a real estate developer, he has yet to lay out a clear vision for housing and urban policy. His pick to lead HUD is a medical doctor, Ben Carson, who has no experience in the area and has said that he is not qualified to lead a federal agency. HUD is also the same agency that sued Trump in 1973 for racial discrimination, and his Justice Department may not continue to fight for desegregation as aggressively as Obama’s has. Change is certainly coming, and for the millions of Americans invested in fair and affordable housing, the future is uncertain.
Housing activists march for more affordable housing options for the homeless and poor in September 2015; via MarketWatch.
Affordable housing policy can be a confusing subject. There are many programs opaquely named with unhelpful numbers (Section 8, HOPE VI, etc.), and responsibility is spread across local, state and federal levels. There is a lot to keep track of, but HUD is the center of the federal government’s housing initiatives. Established in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, HUD’s mission is to “create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all.” It focuses not only on public housing but also oversees the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which sets the standards for single-family home construction and financing, and HUD broadly oversees policies affecting homeownership and rentership across the country. It also promotes equitable access to shelter with programs specifically designed to aide Black, Hispanic and Native American populations. This part of HUD’s mission is now most at risk.
Carson has gone public with just one opinion on housing policy, and that is his opposition to the Obama administration’s desegregation efforts. In 2015 the Obama administration instituted a new rule that required cities to “affirmatively further fair housing,” a mission of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. The rule requires that cities collect and analyze data to determine how segregated their communities are and whether or not segregated communities are integrating. Soon after the rule took effect, Carson published an op-ed in the Washington Times likening the policy to “failed socialist experiments” that “legislate racial equality [but] create consequences that often make matters worse.” Most likely the rule will not last long under his tenure.
Ben Carson (left) and President Trump; via TV Guide
And while he has not spoken on other HUD policies, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has in his legislative white paper “A Better Way.” “Rather than promote economic freedom and provide a roadmap out of poverty,” Ryan writes, “HUD policies have created a bureaucratic, complex web of programs that act as barriers to upward mobility.” Instead, Ryan advocates defunding or eliminating federal benefits like Section 8 housing vouchers or the Public Housing program and shifting responsibility to the private sector. Where Carson is silent, Ryan fills in the gaps, and the story is that HUD will likely be hobbled in the next administration.
The other major tool of the federal government to promote affordable housing is the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), which offers benefits to companies that invest in affordable developments. Created under the Reagan administration, the LIHTC has provided over 2.5 million rental units since its inception and is responsible for 90 percent of all affordable housing built in the U.S. While Trump campaigned as an advocate for low-income Americans, he also promised to reform tax law and reduce public subsidies, so it is not clear how he will treat this rule. Even if he were to leave the LIHTC untouched, other corporate tax breaks that Trump is expected to sign would reduce the relative value of the LIHTC benefits. Why should developers pursue LIHTC tax breaks if taxes are already low? Some have speculated that because of this expectation, affordable housing investments have delayed or have been stopped entirely since the election.
The Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town apartment complex as seen from Waterside Plaza October 19, 2006, in New York City; photo by Mario Tama via The Observer
If the LIHTC and HUD programs are generally cut or depreciated, and desegregation is de-prioritized, then state and local governments may have to pick up the burden. California, Massachusetts and New York City have all announced large affordable housing initiatives over the past few years. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City promised to build 200,000 units over a decade, and Governor Jerry Brown of California has tried to streamline the state’s building-approval process to get around NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) communities that block local affordable projects. Other cities like Seattle have played with more creative solutions like building micro-housing to increase density and make smaller lots more attractive for development. As the problem becomes more severe, more may call for unorthodox housing solutions, creating an opportunity for enterprising architects and designers to step in.
Airbnb has revolutionized the hotel industry since two Rhode Island School of Design grads founded it in 2008, and companies like WeLive are taking a stab at redesigning urban living. Others could be next. A changing affordable housing landscape may mean there are new opportunities and challenges for designers to solve. Whatever innovations may pick up the burden left by a weakened federal housing policy, they will have to provide not just greater supply, but also fair housing access in order to fill HUD’s mission to provide shelter for all.