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Addressing the Affordability Crisis: Innovative Rental Assistance Programs

Community Development
Addressing the Affordability Crisis: Innovative Rental Assistance Programs

Rents Are Skyrocketing, But Help is on the Way

Rent prices across the country have been steadily climbing higher and higher, leaving many families struggling to keep a roof over their heads. In fact, the median rent for newly leased units has risen a shocking 32% between December 2017 and September 2022 – and the vast majority of that spike happened just in the last two years. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, these rapid rent hikes are especially devastating for low-income households.

But there’s hope on the horizon. The federal government, along with state and local leaders, are taking bold action to address this affordability crisis head-on. Through innovative rental assistance programs and a comprehensive housing strategy, they aim to help struggling renters find safe, stable, and affordable homes.

As someone who has experienced the stress and uncertainty of sky-high rents, I’m eager to share what I’ve learned about these impactful initiatives. After all, the affordable housing solutions organization I work with is at the forefront of this fight. Let’s dive in and explore how lawmakers are stepping up to make rents more manageable for families across the country.

Expanding Rental Assistance: A Game-Changer for Low-Income Renters

One of the most promising solutions to the affordability crisis is a major expansion of rental assistance programs, particularly the Housing Choice Voucher program. These vouchers provide direct subsidies to tenants, allowing them to afford quality housing in the private market.

Currently, federal rental assistance only reaches about 1 in 4 eligible households. That means millions of families are left struggling to keep a roof over their heads and make ends meet. In 2019 alone, around 94 million households without rental assistance were paying more than 50% of their income on rent or living in severely inadequate housing – a staggering statistic that highlights just how dire the situation has become.

Fortunately, lawmakers are taking action. The House-passed Transportation-Housing and Urban Development funding bill for 2023 includes a whopping $11 billion in additional funding for the Housing Choice Voucher program. This could help around 100,000 to 140,000 more families afford safe, stable homes. And President Biden’s 2023 budget proposal, as well as the House-passed Build Back Better Act, also featured significant expansions of rental assistance.

But the need is far greater than what’s currently on the table. That’s why many affordable housing advocates are calling for even more ambitious, long-term investments to make rental assistance available to everyone who qualifies. After all, stable housing is the foundation for so many other aspects of well-being – from physical and mental health to educational and economic opportunities.

As someone who has struggled with housing insecurity in the past, I can attest to the life-changing impact that rental assistance can have. When I finally got a voucher, it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I no longer had to choose between paying rent and putting food on the table. Instead, I could focus on building a better life for myself and my family.

Preserving Existing Affordable Housing: A Crucial Piece of the Puzzle

While expanding rental assistance is a game-changer, it’s just one part of the solution. We also need to preserve the existing stock of affordable housing, which is at risk of being lost due to expiring affordability agreements and deterioration.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, about 6% of the federally assisted privately owned housing stock is set to lose affordability restrictions by 2025. That’s around 176,000 units that could revert to market-rate rents, putting them out of reach for low-income families.

But there are ways to prevent this loss. The federal government can incentivize property owners to keep their developments affordable, even after their initial contract terms end. This could include providing financing for renovations and redevelopments, as well as offering tax credits and other incentives.

Preserving existing affordable housing is crucial because it’s often more cost-effective than building new units from scratch. Plus, these properties are already integrated into local communities, making it easier for residents to access jobs, schools, and other important resources.

I’ve seen firsthand how preserving affordable housing can transform a neighborhood. When the local public housing authority renovated the units in my community, it was like a whole new world opened up. The buildings were in much better shape, and the sense of pride and community among residents grew stronger than ever before.

Tackling Regulatory Barriers: Unlocking New Housing Supply

While rental assistance and preservation efforts are essential, they’re not the only pieces of the puzzle. We also need to address the root causes of the affordability crisis by removing regulatory barriers that constrain housing supply.

One of the biggest culprits? Exclusionary zoning and land use policies that limit density and push development to the peripheries of cities and towns. According to the White House, these outdated rules “artificially inflate prices, perpetuate historical patterns of segregation, keep workers in lower productivity regions, and limit economic growth.”

But the tide is turning. Lawmakers at the federal, state, and local levels are starting to recognize the need for zoning reform and other regulatory changes to unlock new housing supply. The Biden administration, for example, is taking steps to incentivize land use and zoning reforms through a variety of pilot programs and policy initiatives.

By making it easier to build more homes – including “missing middle” housing like duplexes, triplexes, and accessory dwelling units – we can increase the overall supply and put downward pressure on rents. And when these new units are built in high-opportunity areas with good access to jobs, schools, and transportation, it can also help tackle segregation and expand access to upward mobility.

Of course, changing entrenched zoning and land use policies won’t be easy. But I’m encouraged to see growing bipartisan support for these types of reforms, both in Congress and across the country. After all, affordable housing is an issue that affects people of all political stripes – and we’re in this fight together.

Harnessing Innovation in Housing Finance

Even with regulatory barriers removed, the high cost of construction and limited access to financing remain significant obstacles to boosting housing supply. That’s why the Biden administration is also taking steps to pilot new financing models and expand existing federal programs.

One key area of focus is supporting the development of “missing middle” housing, such as small multifamily properties and accessory dwelling units. The White House notes that “financing for these housing types has the potential to boost supply in constrained markets and create location-efficient modest density that can improve labor market outcomes and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

At the same time, the administration is working to improve and expand existing federal housing finance programs, like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) and the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgage insurance offerings. These initiatives can help unlock more capital for affordable housing development and preservation, while also making homeownership more accessible.

And let’s not forget the role that innovative private-sector solutions can play. Some housing providers, for example, are experimenting with “community land trusts” that separate the ownership of land from the ownership of the homes built on it. This can make homes more affordable for first-time and low-income buyers by reducing the upfront costs.

As someone who’s always been fascinated by the intersection of technology and social impact, I find these housing finance innovations really exciting. They have the potential to not only expand the supply of affordable homes, but also create more equitable and sustainable communities in the process.

A Holistic Approach to Tackling the Affordability Crisis

At the end of the day, addressing the affordable housing crisis will require a multi-pronged approach. Expanding rental assistance, preserving existing affordable units, removing regulatory barriers, and harnessing innovative financing solutions – these are all crucial pieces of the puzzle.

But the good news is that policymakers at all levels of government are stepping up to the plate. From the Biden administration’s comprehensive Housing Supply Action Plan to state and local initiatives like inclusionary zoning and community land trusts, there’s a growing recognition that bold, coordinated action is needed to make rents more manageable for families across the country.

And as an affordable housing solutions organization, we’re proud to be at the forefront of these efforts. Through our work advocating for policy changes, developing new affordable housing projects, and providing rental assistance to those in need, we’re committed to making safe, stable, and affordable homes a reality for all.

So while the affordability crisis may seem daunting, I’m hopeful that with continued collaboration and commitment, we can turn the tide and ensure that everyone has access to the housing they need to thrive. After all, a roof over your head isn’t just a basic necessity – it’s the foundation for so much more. Let’s keep fighting to make that a reality for families in every community.

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