Where is Affordable Housing on the National Agenda?

I want to have a frank conversation today about "where affordable housing is on the national agenda" and take (perhaps) a different tack on ways of elevating its importance.

October 2015 | by David Delaney

I have long believed that affordable housing - to paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield - "does not get any respect" at the national level. In real terms, federal funding for affordable housing programs has plummeted over the past several decades. Few members of Congress develop an expertise in housing policies. HUD is a backwater in the federal government and has almost disappeared from the radar screen during the current Administration. For the most part, housing advocates have tried to change the current situation by making the case for affordable housing on its own merits. We need more affordable housing because we have an affordable housing crisis.

This presentation will take a somewhat different cut. It will argue that housing advocates need to play on a larger field and describe the essential role that affordable housing plays in advancing other priorities that are arguably higher up on the national agenda.

  • Affordable housing, for example, is essential to making work pay for working families - a key component of post welfare policies.

  • The location of affordable housing is a central part of smart growth policies.

  • And, perhaps most importantly, housing policy is school policy. In the end, educational reform probably won't succeed unless housing is part of the mix.

I would contend that connecting affordable housing explicitly to these broader issues is an important part of improving affordable housing's visibility nationally and contributing to the kind of national attention, investment and policy reform that is ultimately needed. This expansion in focus does not come without its challenges however—substantive and otherwise—and I will try to draw out some of these challenges to spark the discussion on this afternoon's panel.

Housing and Education

Let me now shift the conversation to education policies.

I think everyone in this room understands the role housing plays in educational achievement. For those of us with children, housing decisions and neighborhood decisions are essentially school decisions. We move to neighborhoods with good schools; we leave neighborhoods at even the hint of subpar performance. We don't, in short, play roulette with our children's education. Housing policy IS school policy.

Arguably, the school/housing nexus is even stronger for low-income families. Research has clearly shown that children who live in poor urban neighborhoods are at greater risk for school failure—poor standardized test results, grade retention and high drop out rates. To the extent that affordable housing policies exacerbate concentrated poverty, school performance and school reform is put at risk. Research has also shown that when low income families are given the chance to move to better neighborhoods, school performance improves.

The Gautreaux and Moving To Opportunity demonstration program showed that children saw substantial gains in academic achievement when they moved from high- to low-poverty neighborhoods; and those who moved to the suburbs did better than those that moved to another part of the city. These results are the closest thing to a homerun in the social science community. Housing mobility works. Housing vouchers work. And, an important point, housing vouchers - unlike school vouchers - are a tried and true program.

The bottom line is that the housing community has something to say - profound to say - about school reform that is grounded in 20 years of rigorous programmatic and social analysis. It is a voice that needs to be heard.


Executive Editor

Ms Anna Sullivan

Ms Anna Sullivan