Outside Editorial: Bill needs to be passed for affordable housing

Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The problem of homelessness in America is understandable. Just look at the gap between the numbers of poor families and affordable homes available.

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Nationwide there are about 9 million renter households with extremely low incomes and only 6.2 million rental units they can afford. The waits to get affordable housing, in public or private units, are often many years long. In the meantime, families must make terrible trade-offs between rent and clothing, or rent and medical care, or even rent and food. The House recently voted to expand the Section 8 voucher program, which will increase low-income families' ability to pay for housing. It is now considering another bill that would build more places for them to live, too.

The bill has been in the works since at least 2000, when it was introduced in the Senate by John F. Kerry, D-Mass. The current version of the bill, introduced by House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., aims to "construct, rehabilitate, and preserve" 1.5 million housing units over the next 10 years. This target may be a little optimistic, but it is a worthy goal.

The bill differs from other federal housing development programs in its targeting of America's lowest-income families and in its funding sources. New housing units will be built with grants from a National Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and contributions to this trust fund won't come from taxpayers. Instead, the trust will be funded by government-chartered enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and by new revenue expected to reach the Federal Housing Administration upon passage of a related House bill.

The Bush administration has expressed opposition to the bill essentially because it wants more discretion over the spending of the FHA's expected increase in revenue. It has also said that the contributions from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac - 1.2 basis points, or 12 thousandths of 1 percent, of their total mortgage portfolios - create an undue burden on these companies. But neither company is publicly objecting to this requirement. Besides, these companies receive significant benefits from Congress in exchange for maintaining a mission that is meant to help low- and middle-income families.

The trust itself appears to be well designed, with requirements for matching funds from states and localities receiving grants and for construction of mixed-income housing developments to prevent the further ghettoization of America's poor. The bill has bipartisan support; we urge its passage.

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