Most people are unaware of the government programs that encourage private investment in building new lower-priced homes. When people hear the words “affordable housing,” they may think of public housing– the so-called “projects”– but that’s only one of the many ways that the government helps people rent homes, and it’s not even the main one anymore. No new public housing has been built in decades, and many cities have frozen waiting lists or years-long waits; yet somehow the myth persists that the government just hands out these apartments to poor people who need them.
Another form of help, commonly called Section 8 housing, aids more than three million families by giving them vouchers to live in private buildings or by paying private landlords directly, usually covering a portion of the rent depending on household income. But waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers are even longer than those for public housing; a 2016 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that more than half of lists nationwide were closed to new applicants. In 2016 nearly ninety percent of the households in public housing or Section 8 programs were elderly, disabled, or working (this includes people in between jobs who were recently employed).
For a more detailed look at these programs, see this guide from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
But there’s a third category of low-cost rentals, one that experts from many housing advocacy organizations see as the most effective and efficient way to create more homes for people with lower incomes. These are homes built through a public-private partnership program called the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC).
Homes built by developers using government tax credits are often in newer, nicer buildings, sometimes offering special resources like job training or after school programs. These homes are geared to help working families who earn too much to qualify for public housing but not enough to pay the full market rate. They also help elderly and disabled people, and those with special situations such as veterans or the formerly homeless. Typically, some portion of the units in a building or complex are priced at market rate, while another portion are priced for specific lower income ranges. Sometimes these homes accept Section 8 vouchers in addition to regular payments; each development has its own criteria and rules.
Increased funding is needed–not just to build more homes but to make it possible for developers to price the homes at levels that help much lower-income households. (One of the criticisms of these programs is that in some markets, the lower-rent homes are still too expensive for underpaid workers in key jobs such as fire fighters or nurses.)
Every year, due to deterioration or conversion to market rate rents, we lose two affordable apartments for each new one created. But at the same time, each year there are three times more proposals for affordable housing than there are tax credits available to fund them. The expansion of funding for the Low Income Housing Tax Credit could help close this gap.