Opinion | Public housing should not be an afterthought

Chance Phillips, Contributing Columnist

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s recent report to Congress about homelessness in America found that half a million people were homeless in January 2022. The average American renter is “rent-burdened,” with more than 30% of their income going towards rent, and it is only getting harder for young adults to become homeowners.

This national housing crisis — and it is undeniably a crisis — requires a fundamental restructuring of our national and local housing markets.

Publicly funded affordable housing programs are a necessary part of any humane housing system, but they are chronically underfunded and unfairly denigrated — it is not uncommon for politicians to casually suggest slashing or eliminating what funding does exist. 

The Tuscaloosa Housing Authority was established by the City of Tuscaloosa in 1951 to manage affordable housing programs in the Tuscaloosa area. Right now, it helps 2,942 families afford housing in Tuscaloosa through both the public housing communities it owns and housing choice vouchers.

THA executive director Chris Hall said “most of [their] residents are elderly or disabled. [THA has] a lot of single mothers.” Housing in Tuscaloosa may be affordable compared to larger cities, but it is still one of the poorest cities in Alabama, with 24% of Tuscaloosans living under the poverty line, and not everyone can or should hold a full-time job.

Almost 1,000 families currently live in public housing communities, buildings owned by THA and funded by grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Nearly 2,000 families live in properties managed by private landlords and receive subsidies from housing choice, or Section 8, vouchers to prevent rent from consuming excessive percentages of their income.

These vouchers are not an entitlement, like SNAP or Medicaid, that anyone who meets certain qualifications will receive. Instead, to get a housing choice voucher, one needs to qualify for the program and then get on an invariably lengthy waitlist — Tuscaloosa’s waitlist is around 3,500 people long. Nationally, spending years on a housing voucher waitlist is not uncommon.

Despite THA helping thousands of families in the Tuscaloosa community afford housing, Hall said “approximately 18,583” people in Tuscaloosa qualify for but cannot benefit from affordable housing programs due to insufficient funding. The “demand is there, supply is not.”

In addition to providing subsidies for low-income renters, THA encourages homeownership through their Homeownership Program. 

Hall said so far they have built and sold 45 homes at below-market prices and not a single family has been foreclosed on.

City Councilor Matthew Wilson of Tuscaloosa’s District 1 is a big believer in the importance of homeownership. 

Wilson said his parents lived in McKenzie Court, one of THA’s public housing communities, and “were able to purchase a home by the help of God and those who talked to them about financial literacy.” 

Councilor Wilson and Hall both agreed homeownership should be the goal whenever possible. 

“Subsidizing home ownership programs is better for the long haul for families because, you know, they build equity,” Hall said. 

Councilor Wilson focuses on how homeownership enables parents to pass their home down to their children.

To help underserved low-income families, Hall argues that “we need more units, we need more landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers, [and] we need more opportunities.” Right now, when someone gets off of the Section 8 waitlist, there’s still a 40% chance they won’t find a landlord willing to accept their voucher within 120 days.

“The biggest problem that [THA has] is we’re a university town,” Hall said.  

The growth of Tuscaloosa’s student population is driving up market rate rents and making landlords less willing to accept Section 8 vouchers.

This is only being exacerbated by Tuscaloosa’s ongoing ban on building large, student-oriented developments. 

Hall said building more student-oriented housing would allow a reduction of the rent of older developments and “create opportunities for [THA] residents.”

Besides the specifics of the local market, “Faircloth Limits,” legal limits on how many public housing units a housing authority can receive federal grants for, prevent local housing authorities from growing with their communities. By default, these limits are set at how many units a housing authority was managing in 1999.

Since 1999, the United States’ population has grown about 19%, housing prices have consistently risen faster than incomes and homelessness has remained a blot on America’s soul.

At the same time as it prevents local housing authorities from meeting their communities’ needs, the federal government gives tens of billions of dollars every year to those who are lucky enough, and wealthy enough, to be able to buy nice houses.

The mortgage interest deduction is an often overlooked aspect of the tax code that reduces the income tax burden of individuals that have a mortgage. Until it was downsized in 2018, it cost around $60 billion a year, 50% more than housing choice vouchers and public housing put together. Even after the decrease, it still costs $30 billion annually — 80% of which goes to the top 20% of earners.

If we want to end the housing crisis, we need more public investment in affordable housing and fewer unnecessary giveaways to the already well-off. Housing vouchers should be an entitlement, not miserly meted out after years spent dealing with Kafkaesque waiting lists, and public housing should be available to those who need it. Instead of a luxury, housing should be understood as the basic human right it is.