Poverty, Politics, Profit and The Affordable Housing Crisis in America

Affordable Housing Crisis Focus of FRONTLINE and PBS Reports

On May 9, 2017, PBS aired a FRONTLINE and PBS investigatory piece, “Poverty, Politics and Profit” in which correspondent Laura Sullivan interviewed very low-income individuals struggling to afford rent during the affordable housing crisis.

Also on May 9, 2017, WNYC aired a companion piece, “Affordable Housing Program Costs More, Shelters Fewer.”

Recently we reported on Mathew Desmond’s article How Home-ownership and the MID Became the Engine of American Inequality.

FRONTLINE and PBS highlighted the growing affordable housing crisis in our country and put faces and names to the low-income Americans who struggle every day to find decent, affordable housing. Across the country, 11 million people are forced to make every day choices between paying for rent and other necessities. These households are “severely rent burdened.”

Two federal programs – Section 8 and the Low -Income Housing Tax Credit Program (Tax Credit) – were designed to address severe rent burden.

FRONTLINE followed the affordable housing crisis for a year and found “More and more people pushed to edge” who are “caught in long wake of 2008 financial crisis.” The crisis has been exacerbated by declining household incomes and rising rents and lower-income Americans are paying the price.

Former U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Sean Donovan was one of many experts in the field of affordable housing and advocates interviewed for the piece. “People lost homes, became renters” and this “led to rental affordability crisis that is as bad as its ever been in our history,” said Donovan.

Diane Yentel, President& CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) said that low income households are one crisis away from losing their homes and becoming homeless. “We have over 11 million renter households that are paying more than half of their income toward their rent each month. That means they (are) one emergency, one broken-down car, one illness … away from not being able to pay rent,” said Yentel.

“Only 1 in every 4 households that are in need of housing assistance get it,” said Yentel. These households are “Hoping to win what is essentially a housing lottery.”

Farryn Gyles who lives in Dallas tells the story of her long wait for a voucher, “I want to live near a place where there are better job opportunities … Took me six years to get my (section 8) voucher, but I got it. You can best believe I’m going to utilize it.”

Affordable housing developers across the country face a “not in my backyard” attitude. A Frisco, Texas resident shared with FRONTLINE her concerns about why she is worried about affordable housing in her neighborhood.

The town of MicKinney, Texas saw confrontation between the policy and black youth and the source of the conflict was affordable housing. Housing inequality in American is linked to over 80 year old federal policies that divided many American cities.

The other federal program highlighted in the series was the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. The program brought the private sector into the affordable housing market.

The Tax Credit program is the government’s largest “tool” for building affordable housing in the United States and brought the private sector into the affordable housing market. But the program cannot keep up with the demand with long waiting lists for far too many affordable units.

“In 1997, the program produced more than 70,000 housing units. But in 2014, fewer than 59,000 units were built, according to data provided by the National Council of State Housing Agencies.” Developers who use tax credits cite reasons for why the program has gotten harder to use over the years.

WNYC gave this explanation of how tax credits work. “Every year, the IRS distributes a pool of tax credits to state and local housing agencies. Those agencies pass them on to developers. The developers then sell the credits to banks and investors for cash. Often, to find investors, developers will use middlemen called syndicators.

The banks and investors get to take tax deductions, while the developers now have cash to build the apartments.

Because taxpayers essentially paid for the construction, the buildings can have much lower rent than market-rate developments.”

Advocates for the Tax Credit program say that providing an attractive incentive to businesses is crucial. A 2009 Join Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University found “The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program is widely regarded as the most successful affordable housing production and preservation program in the nation’s history.”

The FRONTLINE piece closed by circling back with C’Artis Harris a single mom who had received a voucher gave up trying to use it. “Maybe it’s meant for me to live in the hood … in the hood, I guess I’m acceptable, so like they don’t, you know, they don’t discriminate.”

Said Donovan “vouchers aren’t a silver bullet, we need housing policy that focuses on building more affordable housing, that is why the LIHTC” is important.”

WNYC Report


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