Affordable housing

Federal, state and local programs that help some of the poorest Americans access rental and homeownership assistance are financially strapped and underfunded, leaving millions of Americans without access to benefits they could be receiving.

“It is certainly true that we chronically underfund solutions that we know work,” said Sarah Saadian, senior vice president of public policy and field organizing for the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

She said a lack of affordable housing resources is a national problem in every community.

Right now, only 1 in 4 Americans eligible for rental assistance receive it, she said. That program plays a critical role in lifting households out of poverty, ensuring people have housing stability and preventing homelessness, she said.

“So the vast majority of people who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads aren’t getting any sort of assistance,” Saadian said.

During the past month, reporters from CNHI News nationwide have sought to examine the issues surrounding affordable housing, who is most impacted by a lack of it and what solutions states and communities have implemented in this multipart special report.

Sabine Brown, a senior policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute who specializes in affordable housing access, said that during the pandemic, people were able to access emergency rental assistance to stay in their homes, and local providers worked hard to keep up with demand. She said that most of that aid has since vanished, even though people are still struggling and need assistance.

Statewide, Oklahoma has a shortage of more than 81,000 rental homes that are affordable and available for extremely low-income renters, Brown said.

Defining affordable housing

What qualifies as “affordable housing” varies widely from person to person and depends on income levels. But, generally, people should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Anything more, and people are considered “cost-burdened,” Brown said.

Brown said nationally, there is more demand for housing resources support, including one of the most effective programs — the Housing Choice Voucher program, which helps low-income families, the elderly and people with disabilities obtain housing on the private market. The voucher program allows people to live anywhere in the state, provided that the property owner accepts Section 8 vouchers and is willing to comply with federal requirements.

“But there is certainly more need than there are vouchers available,” Brown said. “Only a small portion of folks that need that resource actually get it.”

The Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency, a federally funded state trust that serves residents statewide, reports it has more than 20,000 people on its waiting list for its rental assistance program.

OHFA has more than 10,000 housing choice vouchers to give away annually and typically issues at least 1,000 home loans to assist poorer people with down payment and closing cost assistance, said Holley Mangum, an OHFA spokeswoman.

In 2022, more than 136,000 Oklahomans benefited from OHFA’s programs. From 1975 to 2021, the OHFA assisted 600,554 renters and 57,525 homeowners.

“It would be wonderful if we could meet all the demands that there (are), but we depend on other government grants and government contracts and that type of thing to be able to do what we do,” Mangum said.

Funding for many state programs depends on political whims.

The Republican-led Texas Legislature has not historically named affordable housing a top priority. But this legislative session, lawmakers are attempting to address high home prices and rents, predominantly focusing on building more housing options so that prices come down.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan has named one bill, House Bill 14 from state Rep. Cody Harris, a Palestine Republican, a top priority. The bill would streamline the approval process for property development and building reviews, requiring cities and counties that fail to complete such projects in a timely manner to use third-party reviewers.

“The Texas Legislature must continue to support our state’s rapidly increasing demand” for housing, Phelan said.

In Missouri, a low-income housing tax credit program that issued tax credits to developers who built affordable housing was zeroed out in November 2017 by former Republican Gov. Eric Greitens, who said it benefited wealthy developers rather than low-income residents. Former state auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat, also said after auditing the program that it cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars and provided a small return on investment.

The Missouri Housing Development Commission restarted the program, with some changes designed to promote transparency in how the tax credits are awarded, three years later under Republican Gov. Mike Parson.

CNHI reporters Ali Linan and Emily Younker contributed to this report.

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