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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Why Does Affordable Housing Need Saving?

In recent years the skyrocketing housing prices in major cities in the United States have raised the specter of driving out people who cannot afford to pay the increasingly high rents. Many housing advocates argue that the most practical way to prevent dislocation of the poor is to save government-subsidized privately owned low-income rental dwellings.

Why does such “affordable housing” need to be saved? After all, you might point out, public housing doesn’t change into private market housing.

In fact, subsidized rental housing is quite different than public housing. Begun in the 1930s under President Franklin Roosevelt, public housing was created and managed solely by government agencies. Under subsidized housing programs, the first of which started about 1960, the federal government gave various financial incentives to private nonprofit and for-profit companies to build, manage, and own rental projects for low-income households. Public housing was pretty much all government; subsidized low-income housing took the form of public-private collaborations.

Most significantly, the projects under the two housing programs ran for dramatically different lengths of time. The federal government financed public housing over such long terms – with sixty year construction loans, for example – as to make it seem almost permanent. In contrast, the terms of the subsidies under public-private housing schemes were relatively short – most for only twenty or twenty-five years.

Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, the authors of the subsidized housing programs gave little thought to what would happen when the subsidies ended. But years later, when the subsidies began to expire, people realized that enormous numbers of low-income dwellings could easily disappear. Poor people would have no place to live. In response, housing advocates raised the cry, “preserve affordable housing!”

The story of how people realized that privately owned subsidized housing needed to be saved and how they went about saving it is the subject of my newly published Joint Center for Housing Studies working paper, To Preserve Affordable Housing in the United States: A Policy History.”

For some time now, I have been examining the subject of public-private low-income housing. Unlike public housing, remarkably few people know about these programs. Ask about them and you might get a vague response, “Is that Section 8?” Such unawareness is remarkable because these subsidized housing programs have created millions of low-income rental units, far more than public housing has.

I first studied the origins and causes of America’s subsidized low-income housing and published my findings in an article, “Calling Upon the Genius of Private Enterprise: The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 and the Liberal Turn to Public-Private Partnerships” published in the journal Studies in American Political Development (October 2013).

Now in the Joint Center working paper, I have explored the way America’s public-private housing policy unfolded.

My research reveals that the public-private housing programs created in the 1960s and 1970s were highly productive but beset by troubles. Buffeted by bad underwriting, weak management, and economic hard times, many of the early housing projects deteriorated. Housing advocates for the poor jumped in to rescue the troubled projects from defaulting, becoming unlivable, or both. After studying the problems, the advocates sought ways to buttress the incomes of financially troubled housing projects or convey them to responsible parties. In Washington, sympathetic federal officials implemented new programs and procedures to help the advocates stabilize the conditions of the beleaguered properties.

The process, I found, created a cadre of experienced and informed housing activists and government officials. So when the subsidies of the housing programs began to expire in the 1980s, these policy veterans threw themselves into preventing the low-income residential stock from either deteriorating or being converted to expensive private-market housing.

Their efforts, however, set off a political backlash from the owners of the housing who insisted on the right to do what they wanted with their property, including cashing out. The two sides fought each other in the courts, Congress, and federal government until the late 1990s when they compromised and joined forces.

Since then, a broad coalition – including advocates for the poor, for-profit and nonprofit developers, government officials, and philanthropic institutions – coalesced to support preservation of affordable housing. Since the 2000s, the National Housing Trust, with the support of the MacArthur Foundation, has led a highly successful campaign to enlist state and local governments in the cause.

In short, the plethora of programs and efforts to maintain the subsidized low-income housing has become a key component of America’s low-income housing policy. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that people now suggest preservation of affordable housing as a practical way to prevent displacement of the poor.