No, Housing Policy Really *Could* Get Done Next Year

Posted by Ethan Handelman on December 5, 2016

Housing didn’t feature prominently in the 2016 campaigns, and while we might wish it had gotten more attention, we may ultimately be glad it wasn’t the focus of hyperbolic campaign promises. Now, with the work of governing ahead, we could see federal action on housing along several fronts, potentially with bipartisan cooperation. (Don’t mistake this for a prediction of harmony—I expect bruising appropriations battles, chaotic tax reform debates, and many filibusters in the Senate.) The incoming administration is also a big unknown at this point, and we could see anything from a huge curtailment of HUD’s reach to a pro-building boom led by HUD.

That said, there are several housing issues a Republican Congress and president are well-placed to tackle with help from Democrats in the minority:

Flood insurance. The National Flood Insurance Program is due for reauthorization in 2017.  It is “must-do” legislation because without a functioning flood insurance program, people can’t buy or sell houses in the many places where flood insurance is mandatory (among other reasons). The last two major flood insurance laws were bipartisan, so there’s real prospect for the same happening in 2017. From a housing perspective, the key to success will be reforming the program to encourage people to build more resiliently and in less flood-prone places while keeping costs manageable, especially for low-income households.

Rural housing and revitalization. The Trump Administration arrives with a mandate from rural and Rust Belt America to bring jobs and prosperity to places that have long suffered from declining population and deindustrialization. This may well be the time that the federal government pays real attention to oft-ignored places like Appalachia, the Gulf Coast, the Deep South, the rural Midwest, and long-distressed areas close to urban centers. Housing investments are an essential part of revitalization, both as job creation directly and as housing for workers of modest income. Preserving existing rental housing, making housing healthier, repairing homes for low-income older adults, and creating new housing near emerging job centers are all part of meeting the needs our country just heard expressed.

Poverty. Speaker Paul Ryan has been beating the drum on poverty alleviation for quite some time now, gradually putting detail behind his proposals. For most families in poverty, housing is the single biggest expense, which makes housing affordability and quality central to any effort on poverty. Bipartisan engagement on the details of poverty and housing policy will help to get those details right, so that housing can be a platform for individual and community success.

Housing finance reform. Remember that temporary housing finance system set up in 2008 in the wake of the financial crisis? Yes, we still have it.  A new Congress brings a new opportunity to find a sustainable path forward for housing finance that harnesses the creativity of the private sector to ensure reliable access to mortgage credit everywhere in America, for rented and owned housing alike.  Past efforts that progressed furthest were bipartisan, as will be any likely solution in the future.

Broadband access. Having a good internet connection at home is a gateway to education, job opportunity, small business start-ups, better health care, and reduced social isolation. But only half of very low income renters have broadband at home. The FCC recently opened the door to allow housing providers to bring internet connections home using the Lifeline program, and there are many steps HUD and USDA can take to build on public-private partnerships already in progress. Bipartisan action to close the connectivity gap could be a powerful start to 2017. 

Public housing. You’d be hard-pressed to find an area of housing with worse funding cuts or more micro-managing regulation than public housing. Yet there are also great examples of public housing authorities becoming entrepreneurial, pioneering new financing models, and crafting housing solutions in education, health and economic development. 2017 presents an opportunity to recapitalize and reinvent public housing to serve the great need it faces.

None of these issues are easy, and none of the solutions are free. The new Congress and administration that come in January will need to get into the details quickly to make sure that the inevitable partisan battles over budget and appointments don’t get in the way of much needed housing policy. They will also need the political will to bring stable housing within the reach of more people in this country—and that’s very much an open question.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Open House blog of the National Housing Conference. 

(Image: By Mufidah Kassallias via flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

About the author more »

Ethan Handelman is vice president for policy and advocacy at the National Housing Conference.

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