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How Democrats Can Fix the Affordable Housing Crisis

With Democrats taking back the Senate, can the Biden administration go beyond immediate-term rent relief to win more ambitious housing solutions?
February 1, 2021, 8am PST | LM_Ortiz
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As Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, affordable housing advocates looked ahead to the coming days, months, and years with hope and trepidation.

Biden has signaled that he understands the scale of the country’s housing crisis and commensurately vast response necessary to address it. In the hours following the inauguration ceremony, Biden signed an executive order extending the CDC’s national eviction moratorium, which had been set to expire on Jan. 31, through the end of March and called on Congress to further extend it to the end of September. He also asked Congress to take on a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 emergency relief package that includes $30 billion for rental and utility assistance and $5 billion to stabilize people at risk of homelessness and to fund rapid rehousing efforts.

In a speech the week before his inauguration outlining his plans for pandemic relief, Biden drew the link between housing stability and the ongoing spread of the virus.

“Approximately 14 million Americans have fallen behind on rent,” Biden said on Jan. 14. “If we don’t act now there will be a wave of evictions and foreclosures in the coming months as the pandemic rages on. This would overwhelm emergency shelters, [and] increase COVID-19 infections as people have nowhere to go and can’t socially distance.”

As the Democratic nominee, Biden presented a lengthy checklist of housing and homelessness policies and spending plans that included universal access to Housing Choice vouchers, bolstering the Housing Trust Fund by $20 billion, reducing exclusionary zoning, reimplementing measures rolled back by President Donald Trump including Affirmatively Further Fair Housing, establishing housing as a human right, and much more. In total, Biden’s plan would spend $640 billion on housing and homelessness over 10 years. With Democrats taking back control of the Senate there is a chance of some of those ambitious, high-cost bills actually making it through Congress.

Many housing advocates remain concerned, however, that the needle won’t move far enough. Low-income Americans were suffering from a lack of affordable housing long before the pandemic hit, but the pandemic has brought new challenges: billions of dollars of rental debt, a looming eviction crisis, and the prospect of long-term unemployment for millions. Coupled with the fact that Democrats have only a one-vote majority in the Senate and the reality that it will still be an uphill battle to even get some of Biden’s major housing proposals passed, the future of federal housing action remains an open question.

Still, the range of what’s possible is more open now than it has been in decades and advocates are planning to seize this opportunity to push Washington to make the substantial investments necessary to really address the housing crisis with short- and long-term solutions.

“It is remarkable that housing and especially tenancy has become a kitchen table issue,” says Noëlle Porter, the government affairs director at the National Housing Law Project (NHLP). “With housing, Black and Brown Americans have been the most burdened by our abdication of responsibility for federally assisted housing and programs that serve tenants, but we’re reaching a point where even middle-income, white Americans are unable to afford their rent and that’s when it rises to the level of a national issue. [So now,] the president has made speeches that made references to the solutions and put out policy proposals with relief at top of mind. And it is remarkable.”

Though Biden’s day-one actions were welcome relief for advocates who’ve been ringing the alarm bells about the tens of millions of renters out of work and at risk of eviction, the lobbying has already begun for Biden and Congress to aim much higher with their immediate-term housing actions.

Going Further with the Rescue

To start, the eviction moratorium Biden extended through March has significant loopholes that have allowed . . . 

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Published on Friday, January 22, 2021 in Shelterforce Magazine
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