Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Housing proposals aim to boost HUD budget for building affordable units

WASHINGTON — To Larry Swanson, the small apartment buildings scattered across the Pittsburgh region stand as a testament to federal support for affordable housing — support that has waned over the years.

The buildings provide independent living low-income people with a range of disabilities who otherwise would face living in nursing homes or other institutions, said Mr. Swanson, the executive director of Action Housing Inc., a 64-year-old nonprofit that builds, improves and preserves affordable housing throughout the region.

Those projects, most of which have 10 to 15 units each, would not be economically feasible to build, he said, if it weren’t for a specific financing program, called Section 811, offered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Those are the kind of things that private developers don’t do,” Mr. Swanson said. With other federal incentives to build housing, like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit run through the U.S. Treasury Department, “you can’t do the same types of projects; you can’t serve the same kinds of people.”

But a lack of HUD funding has deterred Mr. Swanson’s agency from pursuing such a project for more than a decade, he said. “HUD has underfunded for a very long time,” he said.

It’s a familiar lament issued over the years by some advocates of affordable housing and congressional Democrats. Now, with Democrats in control of Congress and the White House, a push for federal housing dollars is front and center as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, his infrastructure package unveiled near Pittsburgh last month, includes $213 billion for affordable housing.

And a new legislative plan introduced by Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, and supported by Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, calls for $63 billion infusion into a range of HUD programs, including $400 million for Section 811 and $1.5 billion for a related program that provides housing for low-income seniors.

“We believe that, for far too long, we’ve seen flat funding for these types of programs,” Mr. Doyle said during a press conference announcing Mr. Evans’ “Housing Is Essential” plan. Mr. Doyle called it “one of the most comprehensive plans I’ve ever seen to deal with housing affordability.”

A March 2020 report published by the National Low Income Housing Center found 62% of Pittsburgh’s extremely low income households were spending more than half of their income on rent.

Advocates are looking to provide more funding to Mr. Biden’s HUD secretary, Marcia Fudge, a former congresswoman from northeast Ohio, to restore the agency’s might in the housing market. Annual production of new affordable housing dropped to 110,000 units, down from 330,000 new annual units in the 1970s.

Amelia Connors, 21, plays with daughter Ayana, 2, in the family’s spare East Liberty apartment on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. Connors is currently enmeshed in an eviction process. She says she does not have much furniture in her current place because the sheriff locked her out of her last apartment with all of her furniture and clothes in it. She was evicted a couple years ago from a McKees Rocks apartment that she says was infested in cockroaches and vermin. She says her landlord filed an eviction after she called the health department.

Evictions don’t affect renters equally, and some landlords file more frequently than others, Pittsburgh Foundation study reports
Ms. Fudge told senators during her confirmation hearing she would push for more federal aid to struggling renters and homeowners. Over the long run, she said, the agency would work to meet Mr. Biden’s pledge to build 1.5 million new affordable housing units.

Mr. Biden upped HUD’s budget in his proposal to Congress this month, seeking a total of $68.7 billion for the agency, a 15% increase over the previous year. The president enlisted Ms. Fudge earlier this month to join his “Jobs Cabinet,” a group of five secretaries who will lead public and private efforts to press for the American Jobs Plan.

“HUD — perhaps more than any other department — exists to serve the most vulnerable people in America,” Ms. Fudge said in her testimony.

Mr. Doyle said Ms. Fudge is “someone that we’ve collaborated with over the years, and we know she’s dedicated to getting these things done, too, but she needs resources in order to be effective.”

Mr. Biden is being pressed by progressives, too. Last Monday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., introduced the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, which called for $172 billion in grants to retrofit the country’s 950,000 public housing units, tackling a backlog of upgrades needed to ensure clean power and clean water, proponents said.

Republicans have lined up against the infrastructure plan, with some calling for a narrower compromise package that focuses only on transportation infrastructure and broadband. Under the GOP’s counter-proposal, housing measures would be dropped.

In particular, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., the top Republican on the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, has repeatedly advocated for a small HUD footprint.

“The solu­tion is not to dou­ble down on the old ways,” Mr. Toomey said during a hearing in March on U.S. housing policy. In­stead, “we need to scale back the role of gov­ern­ment and le­ver­age the power of free en­ter­prise to pro­mote hous­ing for all Amer­i­cans.”

Opponents of the plan argue government funding for housing is inefficient and wasteful. Joel Griffith, a research fellow for the Heritage Foundation, said providing federal money and tax credits for home remodeling, weatherization and other projects would simply be a handout to labor unions. Regional prevailing wages that Mr. Biden has pledged to pay, he said, are much higher than the private sector pays.

“The unions might benefit in some of these areas,” Mr. Griffith said, “but you’re making everybody else across the country pay for it.”

“It’s not smart to be shackling future generations with debt in order to give these handouts to these special interest groups under the guise of affordable housing,” he said.

Mr. Swanson said the HUD funding provides more than just brick-and-mortar housing; it expands capacity in the community to address social ills. And it gives nonprofits without extensive development experience a shot at providing housing for those in need.

“We learned how to do real estate development by working with those core HUD programs,” Mr. Swanson said.

Action Housing has built about 35 buildings over the years for people with disabilities and seniors. These include the Darlington Apartments in Squirrel Hill, a partnership with the Jewish Residential Services that provides housing for people with disabilities, and Forest Hills Senior on Ardmore Blvd., one of first new buildings in revitalization of that borough’s business district.

In addition to development, Action Housing provides weatherization, mortgage counseling and other services.

Plans from Mr. Biden and Democrats, he said, mark “an effort to invest in HUD core programs at a level where it would make a difference.”