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Infrastructure Plans Should Boost Affordable Housing for Lowest-Income Americans

As policymakers consider proposals to strengthen the nation’s infrastructure, they should prioritize funds to address public housing’s unmet renovation needs and build and preserve other housing that’s affordable to the lowest-income families, seniors, and people with disabilities.

Like other infrastructure investments, affordable housing funding creates construction activity and jobs. Many projects funded through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have the added benefit of requiring that some of the resulting jobs and small business opportunities go to public housing residents and other low-income people — groups that often miss out on opportunities that other infrastructure projects create.

Investments in affordable housing also would advance such important goals as:

  • Addressing substandard living conditions. Investments in aging developments can fix such problems as faulty elevators, broken heating systems, and lead paint hazards, which jeopardize residents’ safety and harm children’s health and development.
  • Helping families afford housing. About 11 million renter households pay over half their income for housing, forcing them to divert resources from other basic needs and placing them at risk of housing instability and homelessness — problems linked to long-term harm to children. The great majority of these households have incomes below the poverty line, so building and preserving housing affordable to the lowest-income people will help meet the most pressing affordability needs.
  • Furthering environmental goals. Affordable housing investment can help fight pollution and climate change by making buildings more energy efficient and support developing or preserving affordable housing near public transportation, thereby likely reducing carbon emissions.
  • Cutting future public costs. Providing housing that’s affordable to poor households can reduce public costs in other areas, such as lowering health care costs by enabling seniors and people with disabilities to live independently rather than in institutions.

Most urgently, an infrastructure package should fund renovation of the nation’s public housing, which has a massive backlog of unmet capital needs due to decades of federal underfunding. A 2010 HUD-sponsored study estimated those needs at $26 billion, and the figure is now likely higher. With more funding, local public housing agencies could address unsafe and unhealthy conditions and preserve housing developments that provide affordable homes to close to 1 million households. These investments can be especially cost-effective, since they can reduce future costs for repairs (for example by patching a leaky roof before damage spreads) or utilities.

Policymakers should also include funds for privately owned affordable housing, most importantly by expanding the National Housing Trust Fund — which preserves and develops housing affordable to the lowest-income families, but at its current funding level can meet only a small fraction of the need for such housing.