Affordable housing developers and advocates are feeling anxious about the incoming president. The federal government plays a massive role in the creation and preservation of housing, but the public investment primarily benefits the middle and upper classes. The largest federal subsidy in the housing market is the mortgage interest deduction, which allows homeowners to write off mortgage interest payments from their income taxes prior to deduction. Our country has always fetishized property ownership, and we have nourished a system through which the fastest path to wealth and stability is tied to housing and ownership. It is deeply tied to race: 71% of white families own their own homes, compared to 56% of Asian Americans, 50% of Native Americans, 45% of Latinos, 42% of Blacks. The mortgage interest deduction adds up to a whopping $131 billion per year.
Low-income renters receive less than a third of the public investment than homeowners, who are statistically far more likely to be whiter and wealthier. In comparison, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) entire budget for public housing, Section 8 housing vouchers, and project-based housing vouchers is just $38 billion per year. This disparity in funding is about to get worse. The subsidies for whiter and wealthier people are most likely going to survive. Trump is, after all, a real estate developer with very real interests in maintaining a thriving housing market that serves the middle and upper class. And while Trump has yet to make any definitive statements on the future of federal funding for housing assistance programs, most housing policy experts expect deep cuts. Trump wants to cut taxes by $6 trillion in the next decade, and House Republicans want a balanced budget—meaning if $6 trillion in tax revenue is disappearing from federal coffers, $6 trillion in federal spending will be cut in response.
Performing the surgery will be Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a neoliberal zealot who wants to restructure housing programs so the central goal will no longer be providing poor people access to stable housing. Instead, poor people will be disciplined by the stingy amount of benefits and strict rules of participation of the assistance program into becoming productive workers—in Ryan’s own words, by instituting “work requirements, educational training, and time limits beyond which benefits are discontinued to encourage non-working workcapable recipients to move toward jobs, careers, and economic independence.” The new regime wants to re-engineer housing policy using the same gameplan that decimated welfare assistance in the ‘90s: push people aggressively off assistance, then declare a public policy victory over out-of-control government spending by pretending the smaller number of recipients means less poor people in need. Welfare recipients decreased from 12.6 million in 1994 to 4.6 million in 2012, but the drop in people on welfare did not correspond to a drop in our nation’s poverty rate. The poverty rate has increased from 13.7% in 1996 to 14.8% in 2014, and the number of families living on just $2 a day has doubled from 860,000 to 1.6 million people. The number of needy families has increased, while help has decreased.
Replicating this shell game with another social welfare program will be disastrous, especially in light of the mounting housing crises across the country, including New Orleans. Public housing has been dismantled across the country. There aren’t enough Section 8 vouchers for families in need. Affordable housing development is underfunded and struggling to produce enough units. Paul Ryan’s plan is going to be a disaster for housing access.
When Trump was starting off as a landlord in the ‘70s, he was sued for violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent to Black tenants. While he hasn’t made any statements so far about dismantling the Fair Housing Act, he made some gurgles on the campaign trail about rescinding the recently enacted Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule. AFFH aims to undo decades of housing policies that have caused economic and racial segregation by clustering affordable housing development in underresourced neighborhoods. Under AFFH, in order to receive federal housing dollars, cities must prove they are actively spending housing dollars on promoting equity and inclusion by deconcentrating poverty and racial segregation. New Orleans was one of the first cities to go through an AFFH assessment, and it’s one of the reasons why city leaders are talking about the need to promote affordable housing development in downtown core neighborhoods. As of this writing, Trump’s rumored pick for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is Ben Carson, a neuroscientist with no experience working in the housing or community development field. In July of 2015, the Washington Times, a decidedly conservative broadsheet with roots in the cult-like Unification Church, ran an op-ed by Carson wherein he casts AFFH as “social engineering” destined to fail like so many other “socialist” experiments.
So the future of federal housing policies and programs is looking grim. But there are still things that you can do as an individual to push for better housing policies on the city level, as well as promote equity and inclusion in your own housing choices:
MANDATORY INCLUSIONARY ZONING
Right now, the city is mulling over enacting a mandatory inclusionary zoning policy, wherein all housing developments above a certain size must include units of affordable housing. The City Planning Commission CPC) is accepting public comments until January 3rd; write to them at cpcinfo@ nola.gov and state that you support mandatory inclusionary zoning where the units are permanently affordable, and make up at least 20% of the development. You can read more about inclusionary zoning on CPC’s website at nola.gov/city-planning.
Support the creation of the Rental Registry, which would force slumlords to bring their rental units up to code. 78% of rental housing in New Orleans is substandard, meaning they have leaks, mold, pest infestations, lack of plumbing, or other major issues. People are paying a lot of money to live in unhealthy, low-quality housing, and tenants currently have few ways to get their landlord to make repairs. Please email your councilmembers to say that you support the creation of the Rental Registry—a way to hold slumlords accountable and ensure rental housing meets habitability standards for tenants.
JANE PLACE NEIGHBORHOOD SUSTAINABILITY INITIATIVE
[Disclaimer: the author works for JPNSI] JPNSI is a membership-based community organization that builds permanently affordable housing using a community land trust model (CLT). As a CLT, JPNSI purchases and holds land in perpetuity, and leases or sells homes on the land to residents at an affordable rate. We recently opened the first permanently affordable housing development in New Orleans. CLT housing never reverts to market rate, protecting the public investment and recycling the subsidy for generations of residents and families. JPNSI is holding its first membership meeting on Sunday, December 11th, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at First Grace United Methodist Church (3401 Canal St.). You can come learn more about how to get involved in advocating for more permanently affordable housing, stronger tenant rights, and connect with other community members who are concerned about housing justice in New Orleans. jpnsi.org
CRESCENT CITY COMMUNITY LAND TRUST
Another local CLT, Crescent City Community Land Trust (ccclt.org) is working with Green Coast Enterprises and ERG Enterprises on the Pythian, an apartment building downtown at 234 Loyola Avenue. Fifteen of the units will be reserved for folks making at or below 80% of Area Median Income (roughly $33,600 for an individual). The Pythian will be leasing up in the coming months. You can inquire about leasing a unit at the Pythian’s website. — thepythian-nola.com
THE FIRST 72
The First 72 Plus provides housing, transportation, and supportive services to people just released from prison. They are currently rebuilding a 3-story house in Central City that will expand their re-entry and housing stabilization program. — first72plus.org
GREATER NEW ORLEANS FAIR HOUSING ACTION CENTER
GNOFHAC investigates fair housing claims: situations where renters or homebuyers are discriminated against on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or having children. In Orleans Parish, you are also protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identification, marital status, age, and creed. — gnofairhousing.org
SOUTHEAST LOUISIANA LEGAL SERVICES
SLLS provides free civil legal aid to low income people. When it comes to housing, SLLS helps clients in eviction defense, subsidy termination and grievance hearings, subsidized housing rights in state and federal programs, illegal lockouts, fair housing rights for the disabled, foreclosure prevention and defense, problems with mortgage companies, and Chapter 13 bankruptcy. — slls.org
GREATER NEW ORLEANS HOUSING ALLIANCE
GNOHA is a collaborative of affordable housing providers and advocates in Greater New Orleans. They can help connect people to organizations building affordable housing (both for homebuyers and renters), organizations helping low-income residents repair their homes, and other service providers. — gnoha.org
Finally, some parting thoughts on how we as a community can re-think housing in our city. The housing crisis in New Orleans is making it harder and harder for people to be able to afford to live here. These days, three out of five renters are spending more than 30% of their income in rent, and two in five renters are spending more than 50% of their income in rent. If cuts to federal funds to support the development of affordable housing and rental assistance do occur, the housing market will continue to tighten and the crisis will continue to deepen—the private market does not independently produce affordable housing in cities like New Orleans, where market speculation is making gentrification and displacement extremely profitable. If you are a landlord, please consider freezing or lowering your rent to a level that is cost-neutral for you and is not a costburden for your tenants.
Thinking about buying a house? Start researching what a shared equity model of homeownership could look like, wherein you purchase property collectively with friends and allies in order to share the burden and the benefits of homeownership equally. Already own and have roommates? Start thinking about ways to include your roommates in the equity accumulating in your house. By paying rent, your roommates are helping you purchase an asset. Maybe it’s time to think about sharing the wealth.