February 24, 2004
Jewish tradition teaches that “In one’s home, even a weaver is a ruler.” (B. Talmud, Megilla 12b) The dignity that comes from having one’s own home is an essential component of a just society. Increasing the availability of low-income, affordable housing can be a first step towards ensuring that all American have access to the safe and affordable housing to which they are entitled. The Jewish community has a long-standing commitment to affordable housing. The Section 8 and Section 202 programs are particularly important to the Jewish community because of our disproportionately elderly demographics, and it is essential, both out of concern for Jewish seniors and for the health and well-being of America’s elderly, that these programs be fully funded. Currently, the Federation system operates more than 100 low-income housing facilities and provides housing assistance and services to more than 12,000 people in Section 202 housing.
Safe, reliable and affordable housing also forms the foundation of the American economy and is at the nexus of stable family and community life. For a growing number of families and individuals, this foundation of well-being is moving out of reach. Families and individuals with the lowest incomes have the most difficulty meeting the high costs of housing, and all it takes is short-term unemployment or an illness for families in these situations to become homeless.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2003 “Out of Reach” report, there are currently 9.9 million low-income renter households (those households in the bottom fifth of income distribution) but only 7.9 million units of affordable housing. While there are government programs available to help bridge this gap, only about 34% of low-income households have access to this assistance, as reported by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies in its 2003 “The State of the Nation’s Housing report. The national “housing wage” – the amount a person working full-time has to earn to afford a two-bedroom apartment while paying no more than 30% of income in rent – has climbed to $15.21 an hour, almost three times the minimum wage, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In 1999, the housing wage was $11.08. The increase to $15.21 over the past four years represents a 37% increase. It is clear that something must be done to combat this serious dearth of affordable housing and enable low-income families to find safe, decent and sanitary homes.
The federal government is making an effort to meet the need for affordable housing through its Section 8 federal housing subsidy program, which provides rent assistance to over 1.8 million households nation wide according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Nearly two-thirds of the recipients are families with children; the balance is mainly senior citizens and people with disabilities. However, Section 8 vouchers are not an entitlement benefit. Because of funding limitations, only about one in four households that are eligible for assistance receive it. Most areas have long and growing waiting lists for vouchers, and many housing agencies have even stopped accepting new applications because of the size of the backlog. To be truly effective in meeting the nation’s affordable housing needs, the Section 8 program must be fully funded.
In his FY2004 budget proposal, President Bush laid out a plan to change Section 8 funding to a block grant format, a troubling proposition for a number of reasons. First and foremost, block granting denies the federal responsibility for housing assistance, an essential part of our social contract. On a practical level, rather than providing the states with flexible options to meet local needs, the block grant proposal would cap federal funding and require states to take over program administration for a program most states have no experience running — without providing the extra funds necessary to do so. Additionally, if Section 8 were block granted, funding would be likely to erode over time relative to need, as housing costs often rise faster than the rate of inflation.
The federal government also works to ensure that elderly Americans have access to appropriate housing through the Section 202 program. Since its inception in 1959, the program has supported the creation of approximately 5,000 housing facilities for older persons, accounting for more than 300,000 residential units, according to AARP. Many Section 202 facilities provide access to supportive services such as home-delivered meals and transportation to community health providers that enable Section 202 residents to continue living independently.
The Section 8 and Section 202 programs are clearly indispensable in combating the housing crisis, but they produce few new units of affordable housing. To this end, the possibility of a National Affordable Housing Trust Fund offers a policy option with a tremendous amount of potential. The current legislative proposals for a National Housing Trust Fund would build, rehabilitate and preserve 1.5 million units of rental housing for the lowest income families over the next 10 years. Existing housing trust funds are distinct funds established by cities, counties and states that permanently dedicate a source of public revenue to support the creation and preservation of affordable housing. Trust funds support a variety of housing activities for low and very low-income households, including new construction, preservation of existing housing, emergency repairs and homeless shelters. More than 280 state and local housing trust funds have produced hundreds of thousands of units of housing across the country, making housing trust funds a proven way to build desperately needed affordable housing for low- and very low-income families, as well as increase the overall housing stock. A national housing trust fund offers the best hope for a generation of affordable housing across the nation.
Therefore, the JCPA calls upon the federal government to
- Acknowledge its fundamental responsibility to ensure that all Americans have access to safe and decent housing;
- Create a national housing policy which addresses the need for adequate and affordable housing for all;
- Fully fund the Section 8 Housing Voucher Program so that all eligible families can access this vital assistance;
- Ensure that the Section 8 program remains a federal priority and does not become a block granted program;
- Provide an increase in funding for Section 202 housing to address the rapid growth of poor and frail senior citizens who would benefit from housing;
- Call upon Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to increase their activities and investments in affordable housing; and
- Support the establishment of a National Affordable Housing Trust Fund to address the dearth of affordable housing, and create 1.5 million units of rental housing for the lowest income families and individuals by the end of the decade.
The community relations field should:
- Educate the public on the scope of the current housing crisis and the need for affordable housing;
- Support local efforts to provide for affordable housing needs, including state and local housing trust funds;
- Urge Congress to support and fully fund the Section 8 and Section 202 housing programs. Additionally, urge Congress to support the establishment of a National Affordable Housing Trust Fund which would create 1.5 million units of rental housing for the lowest income families and individuals by the end of the decade;
- Encourage Jewish individuals and institutions to join other faith communities in investing in Community Economic Development, to provide loan funds in capital-starved communities, for affordable housing;
- Participate in faith-based coalitions that support the development of affordable housing and the prevention of homelessness;
- Educate the Jewish community on its responsibility to ensure access to affordable housing in all geographic communities.