Walter Mitchell of West Scranton, Pennsylvania, sits with his three-year-old son. His family recently found out their rented house would be auctioned off. (Photo: Butch Comegys / Times-Tribune)
While the recent anti-foreclosure bill signed by President Obama is of assistance to the homeowners affected by the current financial meltdown, the bill and its $13.6 billion of housing recovery money have ignored the nearly one-third of American households who rent, including more than 2 million households in New York City.
All these people also have a dream of having and staying in a home - and they also need help from Congress, on the double. Over the course of the last generation, things have gotten progressively worse for renters - and the deep recession has added insult to injury.
When Congress passed the Housing and Community Development Act in 1974, the law included a goal of closing the gap between the rising cost of housing and the slower rate of increase in wages. The Koch Amendment to that bill - which established that a family should pay no more than 15%-20% of their income in federally assisted housing, and that a voucher (we now call this a Section 8 voucher) - would cover the difference. After compromise with the Senate, the cap was set at 25%.
Over the years, this successful program has been whittled away by special interest groups and misdirected priorities. In 1983, the percentage of a family's income that could go towards rent was increased to 30%. That may sound like a small but necessary increase given federal budgetary constraints. However, many families that get Section 8 are paying upwards of 40% and 50% of their income because they cannot find an apartment that meets the established rent cap.
It's not just the size of the individual voucher that's the problem; it's the overall scope of the program. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 3 million families will receive aid under Section 8 this year. The number of individuals in need is far greater. The New York City Housing Authority reports there are 127,825 New York families on the wait list.
Their hopes for affordable housing are dependent on the chance that their number is picked out of a hat.
The Federal Housing Administration advocates that a family should spend no more than 30% of their income on housing. In 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of renters exceeded this guideline, with almost 25% of renters spending more than 50%. The situation is particularly dire in New York, where nearly one in three New Yorkers use half of their income on rent.
It shouldn't surprise us that one very immediate consequence of all this is homelessness. In New York City alone, there has been a 65% increase in the use of homeless shelters since 1998 and a 23% increase since 2002. Even at these record numbers - 36,218 were in shelters as of May 31 - a shelter, though a wonderful resource, is not a permanent home, and shelters only house a tiny fraction of the homeless. While a virtually immeasurable number, the New York City Coalition for the Homeless believes homelessness this decade is "the greatest since the Great Depression.
In Congress, Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Cal.) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the chairs of the House Housing Subcommittee and the full Financial Services Committee, are moving forward with Section 8 housing reform after the July 4 recess. The White House and Congress can help the third of Americans who rent by going back to the guidelines set by the Housing Act of 1974 - increasing the availability of Section 8 housing vouchers, assuring that families pay no more than 30% of their income on housing and using the rent limit as a model for other low income housing. This would not be a bailout for renters, but a return to the protection needed to enable people to pay their rent and remain in their homes.
Congress must make sure that all citizens, including renters, who are often the poorest Americans, have roofs over their head. That's not too much to ask in America.
Koch is a former mayor of New York City and member of Congress. Weiner was legislative assistant to Koch.