Although the recent anti-foreclosure bill President Obama signed may help some homeowners grappling with the financial meltdown, its $13.6 billion of housing recovery money won't aid the nearly one-third of American households who rent, including more than 2 million households in New York City.
All these people also have a dream of having and staying in a home — and they also need help from Congress, on the double. Within the past generation, things have gotten progressively worse for renters — and the deep recession has added insult to injury.
When Congress passed the Housing and Community Development Act in 1974, the law included a goal of closing the gap between the rising cost of housing and the slower rate of increase in wages.
The Koch Amendment to that bill, which established that a family should pay no more than 15 percent to 20 percent of their income in federally assisted housing, stipulated that a voucher (we now call this a Section 8 voucher) — would cover the difference. After compromise with the Senate, the cap was set at 25 percent.
Over the years, special-interest groups and misdirected priorities have whittled away this successful program. In 1983, the percentage of a family's income that could go
Toward rent was increased to 30 percent.
That may sound like a small but necessary increase, given
federal budgetary constraints. However, many families that get Section 8 are paying upwards of 40 percent and 50 percent of their incomes because they cannot find an apartment that meets the established rent cap.
Not only the size of the individual voucher is the problem but also the overall scope of the program. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 3 million families will receive aid under Section 8 this year. The number of individuals who need it is far greater. The New York City Housing Authority reports that 127,825 New York families are on the waiting list.
Their hopes for affordable housing depend on their number's being picked out of a hat.
The Federal Housing Administration recommends that a family should spend no more than 30 percent of its income on housing. In 2006, more than half of renters exceeded this guideline, with almost 25 percent of renters spending more than 50 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The
situation is particularly dire in New York, where nearly 1 in 3 New Yorkers uses half of his income on rent.
It shouldn't surprise us that one immediate consequence of all this is homelessness. In New York City alone, the use of homeless shelters has increased 65 percent since 1998 and 23 percent since 2002.
Even at these record numbers — 36,218 were in shelters as of May 31 — a shelter, though a good resource, is not a permanent home, and shelters house only a tiny fraction of the homeless.
Although the number of homeless is virtually immeasurable, the New York City Coalition for the Homeless believes it is
"the greatest since the Great Depression" this decade.
In Congress, Reps. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Barney Frank, D-Mass., the chairs of the House Housing Subcommittee and the full Financial Services Committee, are moving forward with Section 8 housing reform after the July 4 recess. The White House and Congress can help the third of Americans who rent by going back to the guidelines set in the Housing Act of 1974: increasing the availability of Section 8 housing vouchers, assuring that families pay no more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing, and using the rent limit as a model for other low-income housing. This would not be a bailout for renters but a return to the protection needed to enable people to pay their rent and remain in their homes.
Congress must make sure that all citizens, including renters, who are often the poorest Americans, have roofs over their head. That's not too much to ask in America.
Edward I. Koch is a former mayor of New York City and member of Congress. Robert S. Weiner, who was Koch's legislative assistant, co-wrote this article, and Zoe Pagonis and Bridget Mora helped with it.
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