It’s Harder to Get Affordable Housing Than to Get Into Harvard
A recent Planet Money story demonstrates just how hard it is to get affordable housing if you’re poor—it’s even harder than getting into the nation’s most elite universities. The story profiles Shanay, a mother with a six-year-old daughter in Connecticut, who after a long period without a stable home lands a new job. Shanay then decides to enter the West Hartford County Housing Choice Voucher waiting list lottery. Sounds promising, right?
But here’s the catch: Shanay’s family is one of over 12,000 applying, and she only has a 3% chance to get one of the 400 places on the waiting list. That’s tougher than getting accepted to Stanford or Harvard, which each took 5% of applicants this year. Further, “winning” the housing lottery would mean Shanay and her daughter would still likely have to wait several years to actually receive assistance because new vouchers only become available when a family leaves the program.
These odds are unacceptable. For poor families, rent crowds out everything else. More than half of poor families pay over 50% of their income on rent, which leaves a family of four less than $20 a day for everything else—food, heat, medical bills, transportation to work and school. For families like Shanay’s, housing support can spell the difference between whether they eat or are on the street. Matthew Desmond’s new book, Eviction, has opened our eyes to what it’s like to live with eviction just around the corner and with the powerful and positive impact that stable, affordable housing can have on kids and moms.
One part of the solution is to match our federal housing policy with the dire need for affordable rental housing for poor families, instead of rewarding wealthy homeowners. Experts estimate that the cost of housing every poor family in need is $40 billion per year. Sounds like a big price tag? Yet every year we spend over $170 billion in homeowner tax benefits, which go largely to better-off families. In fact, more than three-quarters of the value of the mortgage interest and property tax deductions go to households with incomes over $100,000. Tipping the scales further, those earning more than $200,000 receive a larger share of federal housing spending than those earning less than $20,000. Even reallocating existing subsidies to low-income families, without increasing the total amount, could do a world of good.
By Nancy O. Andrews, President & CEO of the Low Income Investment Fund