A Big Push for Affordable Housing

A decades-old proposal is getting a new lease on life.

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Upscale condominiums going up in Washington, D.C. Low-income residents are being forced out.

By SHARE

For more than a decade, Georgia Johnson has watched the human exodus: the steady trickle outward of longtime friends who sold their homes to developers and to the newcomers who came amid the housing boom of the 1990s.

Now in her 70s, Johnson still lives in Lynwood Park, a historically black neighborhood on the north side of Atlanta. Her one-story bungalow dates from the 1940s, but the rest of the neighborhood now is characterized by pricey brick houses with two-car garages. A new subdivision with potted trees and manicured lawns boasts designer homes for $1 million plus.

But the old neighborhood hasn't bowed out quietly, and of its many efforts to preserve its affordability, one in particular underscores the renewed debate in Congress over how to fix or contain the country's expanding housing crisis.

It has supported a housing bill first proposed in 1987 and re-energized this fall that would create a national housing trust fund: a dedicated source of money to build affordable new houses and rehabilitate old ones. Unlike existing housing programs, which are subject to the whims of congressional appropriations, the trust fund would be politically immune. It would be financed, in part, by diverting revenue from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage giants.

Condos. Supporters of the trust fund say that it is a much-needed wedge against a troubling national motif: the destruction of affordable in-town housing, often at the hands of high-rise condominium and luxury home developers. (Chicago alone lost nearly 100,000 apartment units from 1989 to 2004, while gaining roughly an equal number of condos.) For the first time, the bill passed out of a House committee with significant bipartisan support, and it is expected to be introduced on the House floor this month.

Not since 1992 has Congress approved a major overhaul of housing laws. The renewed interest reflects not only the new Democratic leadership but also two unsettling trends: Housing costs are growing, and federal funding isn't. According to a study published by the Joint Center for Housing Studies, nearly 1 in 7 American households is "severely housing cost-burdened," spending more than half of its income on housing.

The other issue is that annual appropriations for federal housing programs have stalled, or decreased, since the 1990s, despite the swelling slice of Americans who qualify for assistance. Last year, annual federal spending on housing programs fell 2.3 percent thanks to inflation and defense priorities.

One model that proponents of the national trust fund hope to emulate is that of the local trust fund. In Washington, D.C., a tax-exempt trust fund has helped build and rehabilitate more than 5,000 units since 2001. Many of the recipients make less than $30,000 annually, compared with the city's mean household income of $94,500. Among the beneficiaries is Jeffrey Allen, 50, who lives in a complex called Freedom House. "I was at a shelter for six months and then on the streets before that," Allen says. "I don't know what I would have done without this place."

But as legislation goes, housing bills aren't sexy, and philosophical squabbles intervene. To many Republicans, "trust fund" equals "slush fund," and the Bush administration opposes the bill, claiming it would siphon money from existing programs.

It helps the effort that Democrats now control Congress. But the real push could be the public outcry over housing. With "subprime mortgages" and "predatory lending" now colloquial expressions, lawmakers on both sides are under pressure to assuage constituent concerns. "Certainly, the subprime mortgage crisis highlights the fact that low- to moderate-income folks are struggling to maintain or purchase a home," says West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican who voted for the bill in committee. "I think the trust fund is part of an attempt to address that sort of overarching issue."