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For Working Families, Affordable Housing Is in Short Supply

It has been the best of times and the worst of times for housing in America. It’s been the best of times for the 68% of families — an all-time high — that have achieved the dream of homeownership and the economic benefits that come with it. And it’s been the worst of times for millions of families that struggle to find housing that meets their needs.

While we can take pride in our outstanding homeownership rates, we must remain committed to meeting the housing needs of all Americans. The statistics are staggering. Millions of the nation’s working families spend more than half of their income on housing or live in seriously substandard conditions. These aren’t just statistics. This means that millions of Americans struggle to find an adequate living environment. It means that millions of mothers and fathers must worry about providing adequate shelter for their children.

A recent study by the National Housing Conference (NHC) found that the median income of the nation’s elementary school teachers, police officers, licensed practical nurses, retail salespersons and janitors is well below the amount needed to qualify for a median-priced home in the United States.

Even more telling, families dependent solely on the income of a janitor or retail salesperson pay more than 30% of their income — the upper limit of affordability — for a two-bedroom apartment in the nation’s 60 largest metropolitan areas. And in markets as diverse as Boston, Dallas and West Palm Beach, FL, apartment rents often require more than 30% of household income for two-income families.

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The statistics point to a chronic affordability problem. It is absolutely essential that our communities take the steps necessary to ensure an adequate supply of housing that is affordable to working families.

Our cities and towns need housing that is affordable for teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public servants, as well people working in the service and retail industries. These are the people who teach our children, keep our streets safe and provide the services we depend on.

A growing number of working Americans are forced to commute long distances, or they live in housing that simply does not meet their needs. These working people are an important part of the social fabric. A community suffers when the people who provide its essential services go home to another city or town at the end of the workday.

We need four things if we are to solve this problem:

  • First is a strong economy. Working families do best when incomes are rising and jobs are plentiful.
  • Second is financing. We need low interest rates, as well as a strong and dynamic secondary mortgage market.
  • Third are sound land-use and regulatory policies. In many communities, the housing affordability problem is made worse by a shortage of buildable land. The land-supply shortage is often the product of policies such as large-lot zoning and urban growth boundaries that are established by local governments. Restrictions on multifamily housing development also contribute to the problem. And high impact fees and regulatory costs push up the price of housing. Local governments must reform these policies.
  • Fourth, we need more funding for special programs that can help families buy or rent a home that meets their needs. These include a homeownership tax credit, downpayment assistance programs and tax credits that make rents more affordable. These programs make a difference for millions of families on the edge of affordability.

The solutions to our nation’s housing affordability crisis will not come easily. This problem demands the attention of the private sector — builders, developers, lenders, architects, citizen groups — as well as that of government at all levels.

This is a problem we cannot ignore. Our nation’s families deserve real and lasting solutions.

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