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Don’t Build the Wall, Build Affordable Housing

Money earmarked for a wall against imaginary threats would be better spent on public and affordable housing.

On a cold Martin Luther King Day, Lower East Side residents join housing rights activists outside the first of the "Two Bridges" luxury towers to be built on January 21, 2019, in New York City.

Trump’s vanity wall is a solution in search of a problem. The only emergency is the one created by Trump and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), with their brutal repression and moves to deny migrants fleeing violence their legal right to seek asylum. Research shows that immigrants are actually an economic boon, so this manufactured crisis aimed at repressing asylum seekers literally costs us all. Meanwhile, everyone agrees that we are facing an epic crisis in housing in the United States. Instead of building a wall, the US should build more public housing.

The Trump/McConnell shutdown puts the US’s major affordable housing programs — public housing, Section 8 vouchers and project-based rental assistance — at risk. Project-based rental assistance has been hit the hardest. Tens of thousands of low-income renters and families risk eviction because the shutdown has caused funding to lapse on 650 of these properties. The shutdown also hurts residents of public housing because broken boilers or leaking roofs may go unfixed, as housing authorities can’t access money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to make repairs. And arguably the most long-term vulnerable are renters with Section 8 vouchers, through which housing authorities pay a portion of tenants’ rent directly to private landlords. The vouchers are funded through February, but are at risk if the shutdown extends to March. Private landlords may decide that accepting Section 8 vouchers is a risk they no longer want to take, due to the threat of future government shutdowns.

Even before the shutdown, the country was already facing an affordable housing crisis. In New York City, there are more than 209,180 families on the waiting list for its 175,636 units of public housing. A 2018 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) found that average renter wages are not enough to afford modest rental apartments.

The problem has gotten so bad that we’ve even seen private companies like Microsoft devote money to new loans for affordable housing development. But rather than wait for Band-Aids from corporate actors, we could choose to invest in housing as a nation. However, Congress has created major barriers to addressing this crisis. A key example of this is the Faircloth Limit, which effectively bans any new public housing from being created.

The attack on public housing began with Richard Nixon, who declared a moratorium on the construction of new housing by HUD in 1973. The Nixon era also brought us the Section 8 program, which began the shift from the government constructing and administering housing to instead relying on the private market. But it was Bill Clinton who signed into law the Faircloth Limit, which legally caps the total number of public housing units that can exist at its 1999 level. The author of this provision was one-term Senator Lauch Faircloth (R-North Carolina), who tried and failed to ban unwed teen mothers from receiving any welfare assistance. Since then, the country has been losing 10,000 to 15,000 units of public housing annually, due to them falling into disrepair. In 2011, HUD estimated the backlog of repairs in public housing to be $26 billion. It has undoubtedly grown by billions since, as Congress continues to starve public housing, but HUD has not conducted a more recent study. The country made a huge investment in building these properties, but for years has abdicated its responsibility to maintain and fix them.

At a time when we are discussing Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, and pushing the boundaries of political possibility, we need to start addressing the housing crisis by repealing draconian limits like the welfare-reform-era Faircloth Limit. Thankfully, Rep. Maxine Waters, the new chair of the powerful House Financial Services Committee, already has a bill to abolish the Faircloth Limit — and more.

Waters’s Public Housing Tenant Protection and Reinvestment Act would repeal the Faircloth Limit, allocating money to make the needed repairs in existing units, and adding new money to create new units. The bill requires that any public housing unit demolished is replaced (“one-for-one replacement”), a requirement that does not exist in the current rules. The bill also includes new protections for tenants, so they have the option to stay in their communities if their housing is going to be demolished and rebuilt.

Enacting the Waters bill isn’t the only way we could build new public housing — we could also do so as a part of a stimulus package. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the second Obama-era economic stimulus, invalidated the Faircloth Limit for the purposes of the stimulus funds. Four billion in capital repairs was allocated to housing authorities, which was used to renovate 245,000 units as well as bring back more than 1,800 public housing units that had fallen into disrepair. The stimulus bill also added tens of thousands of at-risk state-funded public housing to the federal stock.

Moreover, if a Green New Deal comes to fruition, members of Congress must seriously consider invalidating the Faircloth Limit for any funds it may allocate. During the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, 1,627 new energy-efficient units were constructed, and over 19,000 housing units were retrofitted to be greener and more efficient. Imagine how much more could be done with a thoughtful blending of a Green New Deal and a dedicated plan to increase public housing. But this tactic needn’t be limited to a stimulus package: The Faircloth Limit could be invalidated for any bill that allocates spending.

If the Faircloth Limit remains, there are still ways to create new affordable units, even if they’re not public housing. The National Housing Trust Fund is a George W. Bush-era law meant to provide housing to extremely low-income individuals and families — those with income less than 30 percent of the area median income or with income less than the federal poverty line. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage loan companies, divert 0.042 percent of any of their new business earnings to the Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund. With those funds, states can build, rehabilitate and operate rental housing for extremely low-income people. The money coming into the Housing Trust Fund is incredibly modest — $267 million in 2018. Congress could and should increase the contribution that Fannie and Freddie are making to fund the Housing Trust Fund.

Congress could also have HUD create new project-based contracts, a move it has not made in decades. These are buildings that HUD contracts with private or nonprofit developers to build and maintain. Rather than give them to any developer, HUD could insist they only contract with non-profits, and put additional restrictions or incentives on the properties, such as requiring that they are built in particularly tight housing markets.

Congress could also add new Section 8 vouchers — something that has been done incrementally for certain populations, including homeless veterans, but could be done more broadly in an effort to address the housing crisis. Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning book, Evicted, has advocated for a “universal” voucher plan (essentially, a voucher given to every person who qualifies), paired with laws preventing discrimination against tenants with vouchers.

Why did public housing become so underfunded in the first place? Part of it is the larger neoliberal shift away from government building and maintaining housing, and toward government contracts being doled out to the private sector. As Edward Goetz of the University of Minnesota noted in his book, New Deal Ruins, “public housing was vociferously attacked by real estate interests and others who called it socialism, and/or claimed it would destroy communities and enflame racial conflict,” but the real aim of public housings’ opponents was to “end the welfare state approach to housing assistance.” But the recent government shutdown has shown that public housing is the most resilient of the housing assistance programs — housing authorities are not going to walk away from the buildings, and tenants are not at the mercy of private landlords.

While Trump’s 2019 State of the Union may be delayed or even rescinded altogether by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi because of Trump’s dedication to taking away the rights of migrants, we’d all do well to remember Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union, which was devoted instead to the additional rights that the United States had “accepted” — what he deemed a Second Bill of Rights. Included in those rights was “the right of every family to a decent home.” Seventy-five years later, we are failing abysmally to provide this: Only 1 in 5 families eligible for federal housing assistance is getting the help they need. Housing is an issue that touches everyone, and it shouldn’t be relegated to the bottom of the legislative agenda. With so many different ways to add affordable housing, the 116th Congress shouldn’t just abolish the draconian Faircloth Limit and address the longstanding and desperately needed repairs. It should truly invest in this most basic of rights: the right to a place to call home.

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