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"Director's Report - The National Low Income Housing Coalition,"

by Sheila Crowley January/February 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

The National Low Income Housing Coalition, founded in 1974 by Cushing N. Dolbeare, is dedicated solely to ending the affordable housing crisis in America. This is not just a lofty slogan, but a strong conviction that the affordable housing crisis in the United States is a solvable problem. We do not lack the technology; we know how to build housing. We do not lack capacity; we have a strong housing industry and an ever- growing non-profit housing sector. We do not lack resources; we are a wealthy nation with a healthy Federal Treasury. What we lack is the public will and political courage to commit the level of investment that is needed. Solving the affordable housing crisis is not currently a public priority, despite common agreement along the political spectrum about the depth and extent of the housing affordability problem. A substantial increase in federal spending on low-income housing assistance is NLIHC’s primary goal.

The Coalition is a membership organization. Our members include non-profit housing providers, homeless service providers, fair housing organizations, state and local housing coalitions, public housing agencies, private developers and property owners, housing researchers, local and state government agencies, social justice organizations, faith-based organizations, residents of public and assisted housing and their organizations, and concerned citizens.

NLIHC’s work is organized around four discrete, but interactive functions:
  • Public education includes conferences, meetings, publications and website, media relations, and information and referral. NLIHC’s weekly newsletter by email or fax, Memo to Members, is widely regarded as the primary source of national housing policy information relied on by housing advocates across the country. Our website (www.nlihc.org) offers extensive information about all low-income housing issues, as well as links to virtually all other sources of information on housing and poverty issues.
  • Research and policy analysis supports the public education program with timely analyses of housing data and preparation of reports that shed light on current policy issues. NLIHC’s flagship research product, Out of Reach, is an annual analysis of the relationship between incomes and rents in every jurisdiction in the country. Out of Reach is used extensively by members of Congress, the media and housing advocates to document the extent of the affordable housing crisis.
  • Field work and organizing focus on services to NLIHC members, engagement of members in shaping federal housing policy decisions, and coordination of joint activities of member state housing coalitions. NLIHC has affiliate housing coalitions in approximately 30 states and is working to establish similar efforts in several other states.
  • Policy advocacy is the work NLIHC does in Washington to communicate our members’ perspective to the Administration and members of Congress. Policy positions of NLIHC are developed by policy committees formed around NLIHC policy priorities: housing production, vouchers, preservation of assisted housing, public housing and housing plus services.

Solving the Affordable Housing Crisis

NLIHC promotes a three-pronged strategy to solve the affordable housing crisis. First, we support policies that directly improve incomes of low-income people, so that they can better compete in the private housing market. This means increasing the minimum wage, establishing living wage requirements, supporting labor policies that elevate wages and strengthening income assistance programs.

Low-income people’s access to existing housing can also be improved by directly subsidizing their housing costs. Approximately, 1.5 million households receive housing vouchers that pay the difference between the “fair market rent” and 30% of their household income. Increasing the number of new “incremental” vouchers each year in the federal housing budget is generally understood these days as the primary indicator of progress, even though the number of new vouchers each year is dwarfed by the need. In the face of millions of needy households, the FY2002 HUD budget provides just 17,000 new vouchers.

There are some housing analysts who maintain that adding more housing vouchers is the only viable housing policy today. If only that were true, our task would be much simpler. But vouchers only work if there is housing stock where they can be used. Increasing problems with voucher utilization in recent years indicate that a “voucher-only” low-income housing policy is inadequate. NLIHC supports a range of strategies to improve voucher utilization, including making discrimination on the basis of source of income a fair housing violation. However, in most communities, lack of stock remains the most serious impediment to voucher use.

The second prong of the solution is to prevent further loss of existing subsidized housing. Public housing and assisted housing (privately owned, but publicly subsidized) together comprise nearly 3 million units of affordable housing. Federal policy in recent years has accelerated the loss of this housing. Some housing is in bad condition and should not be preserved. But most is well-managed and is an invaluable resource to poor families. NLIHC works on several fronts to promote policy solutions to preserve this housing, including transfer of ownership to non-profit housing organizations that are committed to maintaining affordability over the long term.

One of the most effective strategies for preserving this housing stock is empowerment of residents to be advocates on their own behalf. Recent changes to public housing law devolve much of the decision-making about the future of public housing to local public housing authorities and the communities where they operate. As an antidote to more autonomy for public housing agencies, significant rights and responsibilities are now vested in the residents to ensure that the best interests of residents are represented in the decisions about the future of their homes. Together with the Public Housing Residents National Organizing Committee and HUD, NLIHC has been engaged in an 18-month project to train public housing resident leaders to take on this new role.

Finally and ultimately, solving the affordable housing crisis requires building more housing. In particular, we need to construct new rental housing that is affordable to the lowest-income households, those who have the most acute housing cost burdens. To that end, NLIHC is currently engaged in a multi-year campaign to establish a National Housing Trust Fund.

The National Housing Trust Fund Campaign

Together with several other national partners, NLIHC launched the National Housing Trust Fund campaign in early 2001, with the goal of passage of federal legislation to provide resources to produce 1.5 million units of housing over a ten-year period. This is a level of low-income housing investment unlike we have seen for many years. The campaign includes a strong field component, a communications and media strategy, and an active lobbying effort in Washington.

Bills introduced in 2001 in the House and Senate now have 124 and 20 co-sponsors, respectively. Each bill proposes to use profits earned by the Federal Housing Administration’s single-family homeowner insurance program, projected to be billions of dollars for several years out, and redirects them primarily to support production of new rental housing affordable for extremely low-income people. These profits now are counted as revenue to the Federal Treasury and used for other purposes.

The National Housing Trust Fund Campaign has over 1,700 endorsing national, state and local organizations, an unprecedented number of endorsers for housing legislation. This list has grown beyond housing and homeless advocates and includes a wide range of religious, labor and social service organizations, and more endorsers sign on every day. The NHTF Campaign is now focusing on gaining endorsements of mayors and other local elected officials, as well as newspaper editorial endorsements.

Complete information about the National Housing Trust Fund Campaign can be found on the campaign’s website, www.nhtf.org.

Notes:

Sheila Crowley (sheila@nlihc.org), a PRRAC Board member, is president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. She previously served as executive director of The Daily Planet, a multipurpose homeless service/advocacy organization in Richmond, VA, and was a Social Work Congressional Fellow on the Democratic staff of the Housing Subcommittee of the Senate Banking Committee.

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