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Obama Affordable Housing Plan Deserves Action

Today the Washington Post praised a major Obama Administration plan to preserve the nation’s supply of affordable housing, which has shrunk alarmingly in recent years even as the need has grown.  While some (including the Post) have concerns about certain aspects of the plan, which is stalled on Capitol Hill, on the whole it deserves strong support.

Called Preservation, Enhancement, and Transformation of Rental Assistance (PETRA), the plan would give local housing agencies bigger and more reliable funding to operate public housing developments and make it easier for them to obtain private financing.  As I’ve explained, this approach offers the most realistic plan around to preserve the developments, which house some of the nation’s most vulnerable people — many of them elderly or people with disabilities.  

There are some concerns about the proposal that Congress will need to address during the legislative process.  Most importantly, the bill gives the Department of Housing and Urban Development too much discretion to determine whether developments will be preserved as affordable housing over the long run rather than being converted to market-rate housing with sharply higher rents.  While the Obama Administration has made preserving public housing a priority, future administrations might not.  The final legislation needs to provide affordability guarantees that will stay in place no matter which administration is in power.

But strengthening the bill in these ways should require only relatively modest changes.  Above all, debate about specific provisions shouldn’t obscure the plan’s overall soundness — or the pressing need for strong federal action to preserve public housing.  Over the last 15 years, federal neglect and underfunding have cause more than 165,000 public housing units to deteriorate to the point where they were demolished or lost as affordable housing in other ways.  Those losses will likely continue, and may even accelerate, unless Congress acts.