For 50 years, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) has promoted systemic change to address poverty’s root causes throughout the United States. As we look ahead to the next 50 years, we wanted to highlight the impact of some of the organizations we’ve funded over the last five decades. In the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., CCHD-supported organizations have long been fighting to reform and expand access to affordable housing.
The history of affordable housing in the U.S. is complex, nuanced, and has been influenced by many factors. The broader overview below will provide history and context to the crisis of affordable housing that exists in many of our communities today.
A (Sort of) Brief History of Affordable Housing in the U.S.
1934: The U.S. Federal Housing Administration is created following widespread homelessness and economic hardships following the Great Depression. The low down payment, 30-year mortgage plans that are commonplace today are introduced to make housing affordable. Construction of subdivisions for white families is subsidized but African-American neighborhoods are intentionally excluded. This practice is known as "redlining".
1937: U.S. Housing Act creates federal low-income housing, which leads to far better living conditions at affordable rates.
1940s-50s: Post-WWII "white flight" from urban to suburban communities causes a decline in quality of life in cities. Programs run by the federal government seek to eliminate "blighted" housing, which was often occupied by immigrants or people of color.
1950s-1960s: The cost of operating public housing overshadows the amount that was being made in rent, spurring a number of new programs and tax incentives for private developers to create and operate affordable housing units. This leads to a boom in affordable housing in the 1970s, during which time Section 8 housing is introduced.
1980s: The federal government relinquishes much of their responsibility regarding affordable housing, leaving local governments to prioritize the issue however they see fit. Many communities respond to this federal disinvestment through rental assistance programs or investment incentives, but they still have not come close to making up for the lack of federal involvement.
1980s-1990s: A radical increase in homelessness caused, in part, by the deinstitutionalization of people experiencing mental illness during the Reagan administration, makes federal housing organizations turn their attention to creating housing for the homeless once again. Many property managers start opting-out of Section 8, prompting local officials and nonprofits to act quickly to preserve whatever affordable housing opportunities they can.
Today: "Beyond changes to the structure of many federal housing programs, no significant investment in new housing affordable to the lowest income people has been made in more than 30 years, and a great shortage of housing affordable to that [low-income] population still exists." (National Low-Income Housing Coalition).
Racial Injustices in Housing and Redlining
Throughout the years, organizations such as the Urban Institute have conducted paired testing in housing markets to measure the prevalence of discrimination. Here's what they found:
- 1989: high levels of discrimination against African Americans and Hispanics nationwide in both rental and sales markets.
- 2000: discrimination had declined since 1989, but there were still findings of significant levels of discrimination against African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native American home seekers.
- 2012: instances of "overt door-slamming" had continued to decline nationally. However, real estate agents and house renters show fewer available properties to communities of color when compared to qualified whites. This raises the overall cost of house hunting for these demographics.
While outright refusal to sell to individuals belonging to communities of color is, indeed, on the decline, there still exists far more subtle and insidious forms of discrimination when it comes to affordable housing; especially when it comes to the increasing wealth gap and the history of redlining.
Redlining, as it pertains to housing, is the deliberate segregation and federally mandated exclusion of African Americans and other communities of color either through service denial or the raising of prices. This was especially relevant during the construction of new, suburban homes in the 1930s -- the consequences of which we still address today. "The government's efforts were 'primarily designed to provide housing to white, middle-class, lower-middle-class families,' [...] African-Americans and other people of color were left out of the new suburban communities — and pushed instead into urban housing projects." (NPR)
One of the key contributors to the racial wealth gap is the fact that subprime mortgages and higher mortgage rates are more frequently sold to households of color. Studies have also found that:
- Black homebuyers buy less expensive first homes, with more debt than white first-time homebuyers.
- Black households buy homes later in life than white ones.
- Black homeowners are less likely to sustain their homeownership than white ones.
These racial inequalities have led to a startling conclusion: black homeownership rates have now fallen to the same level that it was 50 years ago when the Fair Housing Act was first passed. (urban.org) This is especially troubling considering that homeownership and wealth transfers generationally, meaning the issue is likely to persist and even worsen as time goes on.
In 2014, a sociology professor at Harvard discussed the modern challenges of affordable housing for those living in poverty:
"Between 1991 and 2013, the percentage of renter households in America dedicating under 30 percent of their income to housing costs fell from 54 percent to 43 percent. During that same time, the percentage of renter households paying at least half of their income to housing costs rose from 21 percent to 30 percent. African American and Hispanic American families, the majority of whom rent their housing, were disproportionately affected by these trends. In 2013, 23 percent of black renting families and 25 percent of Hispanic renting families spent at least half of their income on housing."
Affordable Housing Facts & Statistics
- Since the Section 8 programs in the early 1970s, no new federal housing program has the income targeting necessary to meet the needs of people with the greatest housing affordability burdens. (source)
- Federal investment in housing has not increased at pace with the overall increase in the federal budget, and expenditures on housing go overwhelmingly to homeownership, not to rental housing for people with the greatest need. (source)
- Nationwide, there are only 30 units of housing affordable and available for every 100 extremely low-income Americans. (source)
- Federal housing assistance only serves one-quarter of those who qualify for it. (source)
- The US loses two affordable apartments each year for every one created. (source)
- State and local housing programs can be quite volatile, because they are often dependent on revenue from market-driven private sources instead of federal funding. (source)
- Families in the bottom quartile income bracket suffer severe housing cost burdens and are forced to make even more dramatic sacrifices, such as cutting back on health care spending by nearly 70%. (source)
- 15 million children (or 21% of all children) live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, further illustrating why safe, affordable housing is so necessary. (source)
Affordable Housing Organizations in D.C.
Washington, D.C. was no exception regarding suburban booms in the 1960s. Following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, riots ravaged DC's urban communities, leaving 12 dead, over 1,000 injured, and 1,200 burnt-out businesses. With this came increased crime, plummeted property values, and flight to the suburbs by wealthier residents; a localized economic depression was in full swing and increased poverty rates quickly followed. These economic hardships would take a long time to recover from, especially because most business owners decided not to come back after the riots. In the decade after the riots, D.C. lost 100,000 residents.
Equality in the housing market is certainly an uphill battle, given the history of systemic discrimination, but it is certainly not hopeless. Plenty of fantastic CCHD-supported organizations around the country are dedicated to the just cause of providing affordable housing to communities of color by addressing the root causes of poverty and enacting systemic change at the ground level. This includes pushing for affordable housing trust funds that are used by city, county, or state governments to commit public funding to support the preservation and production of affordable housing stock. In addition, policies can be implemented to offer economic incentives for developers to reserve a percentage of units for low-income residents. Many CCHD-supported organizations are also working to pass pro-tenant laws that give residents the opportunity to purchase their buildings before they are sold to developers. CCHD groups also work to create Community Land Trusts and pass other real estate initiatives to preserve affordable housing.
In DC, several of the community organizations CCHD funds have been working tirelessly to empower some of the city’s most vulnerable residents to access affordable and safe housing:
- Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) - Their mission is to "drive the economic and social advancement of low-to moderate-income Latinos and other underserved communities." Lately, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been heavily focused on saving and improving rent control. This includes work that helped push through a moratorium on rent when people could no longer go to work.
- Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) – While WIN tackles a number of systemic issues, their progress on affordable housing has been in motion since the 1990s. "In over two decades of on-the-ground work, WIN has worked alongside city-wide allies to produce over 1,300 units of affordable rental and homeownership units, with hundreds more in the pipeline.” They have organized for the improvement and preservation of hundreds of units of affordable housing throughout Washington, D.C. You can see their completed projects here.
- Holy Redeemer Parish - While not an affordable housing organization itself, this parish has worked with local organizations, using their community standing to save public housing and demand that the city utilize the remaining large parcels of land (Reservation 13 and the RFK Parcel) in its control to create a significant amount of affordable housing.
Coronavirus is Exacerbating Inequality in Housing and Elsewhere
As the pandemic rages on, CCHD is responding to economic hardships by keeping people housed in the face of adversity nationwide. CCHD funded organizations have been working tirelessly to put moratoriums on electric shut-offs and evictions and fighting for permanent rent and housing relief. This pandemic has exposed and exacerbated systemic disparities in not just housing, but in many other aspects of society.
Recently, the director of CCHD, Ralph McCloud, spoke during a webinar for Georgetown University's Catholic Social Thought and Public Life initiative. In it, he highlighted some of these disparities. You can watch the full interview below or read the transcript (timestamp 27:14):
In a way, it's too simple to say that the coronavirus is only impacting healthcare. . .healthcare in African American communities has been well chronicled and discussed as being unaffordable and inaccessible. Even when they were able to have [coronavirus] testing, it was clear that the African American community was one of the last communities to have it -- they found testing for zoo animals and star athletes long before they had equitable testing for African Americans.
Neighborhood housing in African American communities oftentimes will be overcrowded where social distancing will be impossible or very, extremely difficult. Racism and redlining have been contributing to this for generations.
Things like employment -- the African American community is overrepresented in service industries and those. . .jobs that are considered 'essential'; and oftentimes they are only considered 'essential' by the employers themselves or the persons themselves that will be positively affected by the bottom line.
The environment -- African American people oftentimes will live in communities -- more often than not -- that are communities where toxic waste exists, where clean water is difficult to find. . .
. . .there is a degree of stress -- a degree of trauma -- associated with being African American in the year 2020, given all that we've been experiencing.
The mission to create safe, affordable housing in the U.S. has never been more important than it is during this crisis. As we seek to address the racial and economic disparities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic and dismantle systems of racial injustice - present in affordable housing and throughout society - the work of CCHD is vitally important.
Take Action in Your Community
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About Poverty USA
Poverty USA is an initiative of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) and was created as an educational resource to help individuals and communities to address poverty in America by confronting the root causes of economic injustice—and promoting policies that help to break the cycle of poverty.
The domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic bishops, CCHD helps low-income people participate in decisions that affect their lives, families, and communities—and nurtures solidarity between people living in poverty and their neighbors.