Saturday, August 9, 2008

Enough Housing. Just Imagine.

Last week’s Real Change reported that the Seattle Housing Authority needs about $56 million in repairs to their 23 Seattle buildings. There is around $3 million in their capital reserve fund, leaving roughly $53 million of critical repairs without an identified funding source. The Seattle Housing Levy, which is selling itself this time around as funding much of the Housing First approach to “ending homelessness” in Seattle by 2014, is already spoken for.

Also this week, the New York Times reports that the long-term HUD strategy of defunding public housing infrastructure in cities and moving poor people into surrounding communities through the use of section 8 vouchers is running into trouble. The social problems that remain unaddressed follow, and inadequate suburban infrastructure and services exist to pick up the pieces.
The Section 8 program is designed to encourage low-income tenants to settle in middle-income areas by subsidizing 60 percent of their rent. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development issued 50,000 more vouchers for suburban relocations in 2007 than in 2005, bringing the total number of renter families to 2.1 million.

Federal officials and housing experts say that the increase in vouchers was offset by people being forced out of federal housing projects that closed and by renters moving into foreclosed properties. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy and research group, 30 percent to 40 percent of residents in foreclosed properties were renters, many of whom have since sought federal assistance.

Linda Couch, the coalition’s deputy director, said families often waited a decade or more for housing vouchers.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of Katrina and the foreclosure crisis that has followed the implosion of the sub-prime loan scam, the federal government has passed the National Housing Trust Fund, the first significant new federal investment in housing for poor people in decades. While the $800 million to $1 billion annual amount is to be raised off budget as a by-product of the $25 billion Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac rescue, the real costs of the industry bailout thus far may be as high as $150 billion.

And yet, in its tortured way, this is progress. Should the National Housing Trust Fund meet expectations, the money raised for low income housing would more than match the combined $750 million or so annually offered by nearly 400 existing state, county, and city housing trust funds. It's a big deal, but after three decades of disinvestment, still not nearly enough.

The hard reality behind all of this is that the various dodges behind federal housing disinvestment are no longer working. The Federal Government must come back to the table as a partner in creating affordable housing.

What’s in the way? An unsustainable regressive tax structure that lets those most able to pay off the hook for the common good. An irrational and ridiculously expensive health care system that is breaking state and federal budgets. A war economy that squanders blood and treasure at the expense of providing real security here at home.

Seattle’s housing needs — and those of the nation — cannot be addressed in isolation from the broader issues that drive America’s state of crisis. In other words, without a broader movement for economic justice, we're screwed. To housing advocates who prefer the comfort of their single-issue silo, I ask, "How's that workin' for you?"

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