The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced earlier this year that it would close two public housing communities in Cairo, Illinois, after deciding it was too costly to repair or replace them. In urban areas, residents could use vouchers to move to another apartment, possibly even within the same neighborhood. But in Cairo, more than 1 in 10 residents—including 200 children—will be displaced by the closures, and most have no other local housing options, as no new homes have been constructed in the town in 50 years.
Cairo’s housing troubles are a warning: policymakers need to coordinate their efforts on housing for vulnerable rural communities.
Federal investment in rural housing is critical but dwindling
The loss of federally assisted housing is a growing crisis for rural communities, where housing costs may be low, but incomes are even lower. In nonmetropolitan areas in Illinois, like Cairo, a household needs to earn almost $13 an hour working full-time to afford a two-bedroom rental home, but the state minimum wage is only $8.25 an hour. High-quality rental housing is often in short supply. Only one in four rural housing units is for rent, while the rest are owner occupied. Among these rentals, cheaper rent often means poorer quality.
In some rural communities, federally assisted housing is the only affordable rental housing available. Together, HUD and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) provide almost 30 percent of rental units affordable to the lowest-income households in nonmetropolitan counties. Around one in five public housing units is in a nonmetropolitan, rural community. Many regional public housing authorities, like the Alexander County Public Housing Authority serving Cairo, have properties across multiple rural towns. When they struggle with maintenance and capital improvement needs, the ripple effects are felt across the county.
The Department of Agriculture, on the other hand, has financed a privately owned stock of affordable rental units across rural America that is slowly dwindling, as properties pay off their loans. As these properties leave the program, rents can rise, properties can be sold or cease to operate, and USDA-funded rental assistance attached to the units can be lost for the community (although tenants can get a voucher to stay or move).
Both federal housing agencies are riddled with aging properties and shrinking budgets to maintain, preserve, and replace them. HUD has an estimated backlog of over $36 billion in capital improvements nationally. By 2024, USDA-funded properties will face a capital needs shortfall of almost $5.6 billion, up nearly $3 billion from their 2004 assessment. If communities don’t see the reinvestment they need, stories like Cairo’s will become common.
We need to shift how rural communities are perceived and treated and see a coordinated response from federal housing agencies
Some believe that only densely populated and growing areas deserve government investment. HUD secretary Ben Carson called Cairo a “dying community.”
But the rural reality is more complex and worth understanding so that investments can be maximized. Whether it is older adults on fixed incomes desiring to age in place, disabled veterans, young entrepreneurs, tribal members, migrant farmworkers, or resort hospitality–sector workers, rural Americans deserve elected officials and policymakers who listen to their needs and apply a rural-conscious lens to policymaking.
Federal housing agencies should have a shared rural strategy. Rather than merging HUD and USDA housing programs, policymakers from both agencies should maintain the affordable rental housing they provide to vulnerable rural communities and figure out how to sustain it. This means shared agency goals, collaborative planning, coordinated strategies, and sufficient funding to ensure rural communities have the decent, affordable housing they need and deserve.