As lawmakers work their way through infrastructure proposals and appropriations bills, Democrats are confronted with a gap between President Joe Biden and members of Congress over how to address what both see as a big shortage of affordable housing.
The lines between the two aren’t always clear, but the president is broadly using the infrastructure effort to try to increase the number of housing units available while Democrats on Capitol Hill focus on getting vouchers to enable people to pay the rent.
The roles are somewhat reversed on appropriations bills, but at lower amounts. Biden’s budget requested a boost to rental voucher spending, seeking more than House Democrats are poised to provide in a fiscal 2022 spending bill.
But the administration’s and lawmakers’ approaches have two things in common: Both would add billions of dollars to federal spending on housing, and both would fall short of solving the problem. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that the U.S. needs another 7 million rental homes to meet the needs of low-income families. The Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank, says 8.2 million households are eligible for vouchers and aren’t receiving them.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge said at a House Financial Services Committee hearing this month that the administration knows its proposal falls short of meeting the full extent of housing needs, but it’s a start.
“As a nation, we have not at any time in recent history for decades invested in public housing or new moderate- and low-income housing. We just have not done it. And so, time has finally caught up with us,” Fudge said. “If we do not take this opportunity to invest in housing, as we have not done in generations, we will never be able to catch up.”
She called Biden’s proposal “the most significant piece of housing legislation in my lifetime.”
House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters has a bill that would do more than any other to expand housing supply and vouchers, but its $600 billion price tag is well above what most lawmakers are discussing, even with a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill in play to carry some infrastructure spending.
Biden is trying to address the housing shortage by expanding the supply. His infrastructure proposal in March, which he labeled the “American Jobs Plan” to emphasize the employment rationale, would spend $213 billion over eight years to build or rehabilitate at least 2 million units, most of them rentals.
As wide as the gap is between the supply and the need for affordable housing, the federal government still has to spend billions just to keep things at the current level. The National Low Income Housing Coalition in 2019 estimated 10,000 public housing apartments are lost to disrepair every year.