Opinion

Congress should not balance the budget on the backs of low-Income Americans

By Jacquelyn Simone |  

April 19, 2017 |  

(Srdjan Randjelovic/Shutterstock)

All of us at the Coalition for the Homeless, New York’s premier homeless advocacy and direct service organization, are disheartened that the budget debate in Washington has not paid enough attention to just how much these spending cuts will affect people in need across the country.

The insufficient budget for critical housing programs has a direct impact on the homeless and low-income New Yorkers we serve. In New York City and across the nation, an increasing number of Americans each month struggle to make ends meet and pay rent on time. In fact, the National Low Income Housing Coalition has found that there are seven million fewer apartments affordable to our nation’s 11 million extremely low-income families than what’s needed to meet demand. This means that there are only 35 affordable apartments for every 100 extremely low-income families – defined as families whose incomes do not exceed the federal poverty level or 30 percent of Area Median Income. With so few options, fully three-quarters of these households pay more than half of their limited income on rent.

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This affordability crisis is particularly severe in New York City: One-third of all city renters paid more than half of their incomes on rent in 2014, and high rent burdens among the lowest-income New Yorkers are nearly universal. Because “the rent eats first,” as sociologist and author of Evicted Matthew Desmond points out, these families are forced to make harmful tradeoffs and skimp on groceries, medical care and other basic needs. Furthermore, the risk of prolonged housing instability, eviction, and literal homelessness becomes an everyday threat to these families.

Every state and congressional district is directly impacted by this growing housing affordability problem. Yet, low spending caps – required by the Budget Control Act of 2011 – have already led to deep cuts to critical housing programs. Since 2010, funding for federal housing programs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been cut by $4.3 billion (adjusted for inflation). The programs hardest hit include those that support public housing, community development, housing construction, and housing for our neighbors who are elderly or have disabilities.

The impact of these cuts is already being felt in our community. As rents continue to increase across all New York City neighborhoods, the city has been struggling to keep up with the unprecedented demand for more affordable housing. Decades of federal disinvestment have led to a massive capital backlog in the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), threatening the city’s most valuable supply of affordable housing. According to NYCHA, as of March 2016, there were 258,880 city families on the waiting list for conventional public housing and 147,033 families on the waiting list for Section 8 housing. These are hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who desperately need homes but are left with only traumatic instability and the constant risk of homelessness due to inadequate supply. Similarly, developers rely on federal tax credits and funding streams to build new housing in order to mitigate the dearth of private affordable rental units. 

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The acute lack of affordable housing is the primary cause of record homelessness throughout New York City, where more than 62,000 men, women, and children sleep in shelters each night and thousands more live on the streets. Only about a third of homeless households receive a stable housing placement when they exit city shelters, and too often New Yorkers remain homeless for years. Nearly a third of homeless families in shelter are in fact employed, but simply cannot afford the high cost of housing.

While the White House and Congress have reached short-term agreements in recent years to provide some modest budgetary relief, harmful spending caps will return for the fiscal year 2018 budget. The risk is magnified by the additional cuts proposed by President Donald Trump. Unless Congress acts, millions of low-income families will be negatively impacted and thousands of families will be at increased risk of homelessness. Those who are already homeless would find it nearly impossible to get back on their feet without vital housing resources.

Today, just one out of four families who are eligible for federal housing assistance wins the lottery and receives the help that they need. Further cuts to the budget will only make their odds of receiving this critical lifeline even longer.

It is time for President Trump and Congress to put an end to these pointless low spending caps that have weakened the federal safety net but done little to address our nation’s debt problem. Instead, lawmakers must examine the very real harm these spending cuts have on our communities – on hardworking families struggling to keep a roof over their heads. These are not just data points on a spreadsheet; these are our neighbors. Balancing the nation’s budget should not be done on the backs of the lowest-income families and individuals.

Jacquelyn Simone is a policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless.

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