Workers continue construction on two affordable housing developments, one for seniors and one for multi-family use, along the Embarcadero near Broadway in San Francisco, Calif., on February 4, 2020. (Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
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Around this time last year, advocates at the National Low Income Housing Coalition were talking about President Donald Trump’s latest effort “to gut America’s safety net for low-income people” by slashing funds for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by 15%. 

But the tables have turned — drastically.

President Joe Biden recently released a $1.5 trillion discretionary spending proposal that calls for increasing HUD’s budget by 15%. His plan would expand the number of families who receive a voucher for affordable housing; provide more funding for homeless assistance grants; boost funding for improvements at public housing complexes; and increase the stock of affordable housing across the country. 

Marcia Fudge, HUD’s secretary, said in a statement that the proposal “turns the page on years of inadequate and harmful spending requests.” It will be debated later this year as Congress crafts a budget and will likely face opposition from Republicans.

The Center for Public Integrity recently interviewed Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, about Biden’s proposal and whether it will address the systemic issues that led to an affordable housing crisis.

*This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Saadian (Courtesy of Sarah Saadian)

How does President Biden’s plan differ from the housing-related proposals we saw from President Trump?

They couldn’t be more different. It’s a good example of opposites in terms of approaches to the HUD budget. We saw President Trump’s proposals over four years and all of them consistently called for cutting HUD programs by a significant amount. We had estimated at the time, with the fiscal year 2018 budget request from Trump, that about 250,000 households would have lost their housing assistance. You compare that to the Biden plan, which would expand rental assistance to an additional 200,000 households. So again, very, very different approaches there. President Trump had called for a two-thirds cut, at least, to the public housing capital fund. President Biden’s proposal proposes to increase capital funds. Trump would have reduced homelessness assistance funds; Biden’s would increase those funds. So essentially in many major ways, they are taking very different approaches to that.

The other thing that was interesting about the Trump budgets is that they proposed a lot of programmatic changes that would have reduced the benefit that goes to low-income households, so things like increasing their financial burdens by making them pay a greater share of their rent, raising rents on the very poorest of households that were in HUD housing. 

What did President Trump have against affordable housing initiatives? 

That’s a good question for someone who was working in the Trump administration, but from our perspective, the housing proposals that the Trump administration put forward were cruel — especially in the context of an affordable housing crisis where there are millions of households that are paying 50, 60, 70% of their income on rent, and are very susceptible to falling behind on their rent, facing eviction, being pushed into homelessness. 

I think the failure of both the Trump administration and past Congresses, frankly, to really fund housing programs at the scale that’s needed made the pandemic that we just went through even more damaging. You saw millions of households that were already on the cusp, and for them, this pandemic just pushed them over the edge where they were facing eviction. At one point, we had estimated that up to 30 to 40 million renters were at risk of losing their homes, so part of that is because the housing crisis was so bad going into the pandemic, and now of course those same households are even more precariously housed. The president’s budget is coming at a good time. We need these investments. 

Do you think the proposal from Biden goes far enough in addressing some of those problems that were exacerbated by the pandemic?

I mean, it’s incredible to see the president’s proposal for $213 billion [in his transportation plan] in housing investments. That will go a long way in addressing these needs, if deployed effectively. But certainly there’s a lot more need that’s out there, and we’re encouraging him to go further. For example, the president’s budget didn’t make mention of expanding rental assistance, and we think that’s really important. That’s something the president has endorsed earlier. We also would want the resources that are being provided for housing to be as targeted as possible to where the needs are the greatest, because that’s the most effective of both serving those people who are most impacted by the housing crisis but also getting at that underlying structural reason for why we have a housing crisis.

How did we get to this point where we have a housing crisis, and who is most impacted? 

The people who are most impacted are those renters who have the very lowest income and those who are the most marginalized, disproportionately people of color, and you see that at every stage in this housing market. They are more likely to be low income, more likely to be paying more than 50% of their income on rent, more likely to face the risk of eviction, and more likely to be homeless. 

A lot of it has to do with Congress chronically underfunding housing solutions. There’s a lot of housing that the private sector can build, right? There are reforms at the local level, like zoning and land-use regulations that can help facilitate more of that. But at the very bottom of the income spectrum, there’s a market failure where the private sector can’t reach those households on its own, so the only way that housing really gets built is if it’s with federal subsidies. Over the past several decades, we just haven’t funded those programs at the level that’s necessary to meet that need. So what you see is a severe shortage of housing that’s affordable to people with the lowest incomes.

Do you think Republicans in Congress are going to warm up to these ideas?

I don’t know. We’ve been able to have good relationships with some Republicans, especially because our focus is on renters who have the very greatest needs. So there’s definitely some Republicans who might want limited government but who recognize that there’s a role to play for people experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of homelessness. We’re watching to see what will happen with bipartisan talks, but it sounds like folks aren’t super optimistic about that.

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