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September 6, 2018

Three ways to strengthen the affordable rental housing supply

September 6, 2018

Demand on the American rental market has grown since the Great Recession and mortgage crisis. But the supply of rental housing is not keeping up. Rents are skyrocketing in some markets, but this is not simply a hot-market problem. No US county has enough housing that its lowest-income renters can afford.

I testified Wednesday before the US House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Insurance about the need to boost the availability of affordable housing for low-income renters. As more Americans come to rely on multifamily rental housing, the rental supply must grow and become available in more types of communities.

Research shows these three steps will create a winning combination to strengthen the affordable housing supply.

Address exclusionary zoning practices

Exclusionary zoning, from lot-size restrictions and zoning approvals to growth boundaries and structure type, increases the costs of housing development and drives economic and racial segregation. These impacts are rooted in a racist regulatory legacy that is still playing out. Decades after the Fair Housing Act passed, we still see persistent racial segregation and increased economic segregation.

Across US metropolitan regions, the highest-income households tend to concentrate in a limited number of suburban locations with good access to jobs and open space, large new or renovated homes, spacious lots, and high-quality public schools. To protect high property values, residents of these neighborhoods support exclusionary zoning regulations that limit housing development, keep lot sizes large, restrict dense housing development, and add uncertainty in the development process. Regulations that perpetuate economic and racial segregation reduce the rental supply at a time when demand for rental homes is rising.

Vice president of the Research to Action Lab and chief innovation officer at the Urban Institute Erika C. Poethig testifies before the US House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Insurance. Photo via the subcommittee.

These exclusionary practices come at a real cost. Segregation results in an unequal distribution of access to opportunity and exposure to harm. As my colleagues found in studying 20 years of data on Chicago, higher levels of economic segregation and black-white segregation were associated with lower black per capita income. Additionally, higher levels of black-white segregation were associated with lower levels of educational attainment for both blacks and whites, as well as higher homicide rates.

Support public investment in affordable housing

Rental affordability problems are found in rural, suburban, and urban counties, in the heartland and on the coasts. Nationally, only 46 adequate and affordable rentals are available for every 100 extremely low–income renter households. Without federal support, this problem would be significantly worse. Although regulations and zoning practices affect the ability to build and preserve affordable housing, our research shows that changes to regulations will not be enough to address the affordability crisis.

The private market alone cannot supply housing at rents that America’s lowest-income households can afford. Public subsidies are needed to close the gap between the costs of constructing and operating multifamily rental housing and the revenue that affordable rents can bring in. This is especially true for projects targeting low-income families.

But the need for rental assistance far exceeds the supply. Unlike other safety net programs—such as Social Security, food stamps, Medicaid, or Medicare—housing assistance is not treated as a universal benefit for eligible households. In 2015, 22.3 million households had housing needs that could be addressed through federal rental assistance programs like vouchers and public housing, but only 21 percent of these eligible households received such help.

Continue to protect the health and well-being of all communities

While housing regulations can drive up costs and perpetuate segregation, many are grounded in efforts to protect public health and well-being. To protect individual and public health, research suggests we need to retain and enforce healthy housing standards and consider new regulations in response to emerging science. A growing body of research links housing to health outcomes, with ample evidence that healthy housing regulations protect children and older adults and can reduce exposure to toxins that disproportionately affect historically black and brown neighborhoods.

Though lead paint remains a risk in many older homes, a 1992 federal regulation on lead exposure in federally assisted housing resulted in lower blood lead levels among children in families with housing assistance, in aggregate, than other children in low-income families. The benefits of healthy housing regulations and affordable housing policies matter for more than health. Living in substandard housing, which can be prevented by adequate housing quality regulations, code enforcement, and subsidy access, leads to lower literacy scores for children entering kindergarten.

A projected dramatic expansion of senior households increases the urgency of developing housing policies that improve housing accessibility for seniors aging in place. The Research Institute for Housing America found that 54 percent of people older than 65 living in poor-quality housing had fallen in the last two years, compared with 34 percent of those in excellent-quality housing.

Neighborhood-level health disparities that have arisen out of discrimination and disinvestment also call for regulations to protect and enhance the health and well-being of people of color and traditionally black and brown neighborhoods. A recent national study in the American Journal of Public Health on exposure of different populations to sites that emit particulates (which are linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases) found that nonwhite populations (including blacks, Hispanics, and Asians and Pacific Islanders) had more proportional exposure than the white population at 1.28 times the overall population.

The big picture of affordable housing policy

Policymakers should understand the full picture of housing regulations, the market failures that call for rental subsidies even after reducing regulatory barriers, the need to prevent and reverse exclusionary zoning, and the role of rental regulations in protecting the health and well-being of children, older adults, and historically marginalized neighborhoods and people. Rationalizing local zoning and supporting the housing needs of our lowest-income neighbors will benefit every community. 

Illustration by Cenkerdem/Getty Images.

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