Why America Needs More Social Housing

Source: Peter Dreier, American Prospect, April 16, 2018

The quest to provide what has come to be called “affordable housing” in America is hobbled by one fundamental reality. Too much housing is in the market sector and too little is in a social sector permanently protected from rising prices. The result is that supply and demand relentlessly bids up market prices. Government is required to provide deeper and deeper subsidies to keep rents within the bounds of incomes, so fewer and fewer people get any kind of help. This is true whether the form of public subsidy is tax breaks, direct subsidies, vouchers, or deals with developers to set aside some percent of units as affordable. In most cities, the median rent far exceeds what median incomes can afford. In cities with hot housing markets, homeownership is even further beyond reach for those who do not already own homes, exacerbating competition for scarce apartments.

The idea of having a permanent sector of social housing, protected in perpetuity from market pressures, has a bad reputation in the United States, in part because of misleading stereotypes about public housing. But other forms of social housing are being depleted as well, including middle-income projects built with tax breaks, such as Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan, which were sold to the highest bidder and converted to market housing; and government-subsidized buildings from the 1960s through the 1980s, built under federal housing programs but allowed to be converted to market-rate apartments once their original mortgages were paid off or the 20-year subsidy contract expired.

Government policymakers have made almost no provision to protect the stunted social sector that exists, much less add to it. There are some exceptions to this dismal pattern, such as land trusts that preserve a social housing sector in perpetuity, in cities like Burlington, Vermont. But for the most part, the place to look for models is abroad. And no place does it better than Vienna….

Income Limits
Source: Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2018

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sets income limits that determine eligibility for assisted housing programs including the Public Housing, Section 8 project-based, Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, Section 202 housing for the elderly, and Section 811 housing for persons with disabilities programs. HUD develops income limits based on Median Family Income estimates and Fair Market Rent area definitions for each metropolitan area, parts of some metropolitan areas, and each non-metropolitan county.