Is homelessness something we can accept?

You’d have to have a pretty cold heart not to be moved by this story: an empathetic doctor and a homeless inventor partner together to launch the homeless man’s invention, changing both their lives in the process.

The story of Mike Williams, who became homeless after a series of financial setbacks, reminds us that as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, none of us are immune from personal disaster. Even for those with great talent or success, like Mr. Williams, hardship or homelessness could be just a short run of bad luck away.

The invention in question is a six-foot by six-foot pod with a chemical toilet, a “secure, safe place for the homeless and people [who] are displaced in society.”

Providing a safe place for people to live is a laudable goal. And no doubt, Mr. Williams has the skill and ingenuity to create something truly useful to many people. But a so-called survival pod is not a solution to homelessness.

Homelessness is not a permanent aspect of our society, nor is it a logical, unavoidable side-effect of capitalism that we must all come to accept. We should not strive to make homelessness easier for people; we should strive to end it. Homelessness exists because the housing available in our communities is too expensive for low-wage workers, seniors and people with disabilities to afford, and because some people have additional personal challenges like mental illness or domestic violence that make maintaining their housing even harder.

Survival pods, like homeless shelters, are at best an interim solution. What is necessary is for the supply of housing affordable to the lowest income Americans to increase. It is not complicated, and it can be done. Our proposal is to fund this increase through a modification of the home mortgage interest deduction that will make home ownership tax benefits available to more middle and lower income home owners, while simultaneously producing savings that can be invested in the production and preservation of housing affordable to extremely low income renters.

When it was signed into law in 2008, the National Housing Trust Fund was a beacon of hope for housing and homelessness advocates. The financial crisis of that year postponed its initial funding. But the country’s financial climate- and its political climate- have changed. Our conversations with Senators and their staffs have convinced us that the mortgage interest deduction as we know it is not long for this world. We have the chance, this year, to influence this rare and welcome debate. Our hope, and our effort, is renewed.

Mr. Williams, like all the rest of us, deserves the dignity of a safe, decent, affordable place to call home. Join with us in support of housing policy that will get us there.

News Round-Up: Fighting Words

It’s time to fight for the National Housing Trust Fund.

So says the New York Times in an editorial this weekend citing the shortage of safe, decent housing affordable to the lowest income Americans as “one of America’s most vexing problems.”

Vexing is right. As National Low Income Housing Coalition analysis shows, there are only 30 units of housing affordable and available to every 100 extremely low income renters. This absolute shortage of housing has persisted and, in fact, increased over the years. The result is that these extremely low income renters are renting housing they can’t afford- the only housing available to them. And after paying for rent and utilities, 3/4 of extremely low income renter households have less than half of their income left for life’s necessities, like food, transportation and healthcare.

As dire as this situation sounds (and is), there are rays of hope when it comes to policy solutions. As the Times explains, the National Housing Trust Fund, when funded, will “create affordable housing, through rehabilitation or construction” that will end the affordable housing shortage and build on the successful efforts our nation has already made to stem the tide of homelessness.

There are two funding sources for the National Housing Trust Fund that have great potential: contributions from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the savings from reform of the mortgage interest deduction into a credit that will benefit more middle and lower income homeowners.

The basis for proposing these two funding sources is simple: the federal government makes a significant investment in making home ownership easy for people who can already afford high-quality housing. It’s time for the government to put its housing money where the need for housing is greatest.

Think this is an idea you can endorse? You can do that right here.

News Round-Up: Making Housing a Priority

Our first news round-up of 2013 brings you stories of a big push to provide greater funding for affordable housing, and some very real reasons why that housing is so important.

First, to reasons: In The Nation we read about the connection between safe, decent housing and educational success. According to the post, “Children who lack stable homes are more anxious and less focused than their peers who have adequate housing. They are also at higher risk for poor health and developmental problems, and have lower educational attainment,” which are cited as reasons to finally fund the National Housing Trust Fund.

In a story from April re-posted on Christmas Eve, Crosscut explores what life is like for unemployed, homeless people who live at a highway rest stop outside of Seattle. The author notes that the Housing Wage in Washington State is so high that even if one of the gentlemen she interviews manages to have his application for SSI accepted, he will not earn enough to afford a modest apartment in that state.

As The Nation noted, the National Housing Trust Fund would be part of the solution to homelessness in America, but it is still without a funding source. Housing Affairs Letter and The Hill both report that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) introduced a bill in December that would fund the National Housing Trust Fund, among other housing programs, through a reform of the mortgage interest deduction.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition proposes a reform to the mortgage interest deduction that would make mortgage tax breaks work for middle and lower income families, while providing the level of funding the National Housing Trust Fund would need to end homelessness in 10 years.

News Round-Up: Funding Housing, Ending Homelessness

Sunday morning, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry hosted a wide-ranging discussion on the aspects of America’s housing crisis that don’t get the attention they deserve: namely, housing discrimination, the impact of foreclosure on renters and the shortage of housing affordable to the lowest income Americans.

In the discussion’s first segment, panelists James Perry, former NLIHC board member and Executive Director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center; Sheila Crowley, President and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition; Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for the Washington Post; and Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas discussed predatory mortgage lending aimed at communities of color. The panelists also noted the over-investment in and skewed focus on home ownership in the United States.

The focus of the second part of the discussion was foreclosure and its impact on communities of color, and on renters. As Ms. Crowley noted, NLIHC has found that 40% of households impacted by foreclosure are renters.

The segment closed with a discussion of the National Housing Trust Fund, which if fully funded could end homelessness in the United States. Panelists agreed that it is time to rebalance federal housing policy so it no longer provides disproportionate benefit to higher income homeowners at the expense of the lowest income families.

Host Melissa Harris-Perry concluded that mayors should strongly support housing tax reform and an investment in the National Housing Trust Fund as it would result in an investment in the exact communities that had been wrenched apart by the foreclosure crisis. We can end homelessness, she said, and not to do it would be a violation of who we are as Americans.

Ending the Shortage of Affordable Housing with Housing Tax Reform

We’ve written often about the shortage of rental housing affordable and available to the lowest income Americans. This shortage complicates our national efforts to end homelessness, and makes it harder for the growing population of chronically underemployed workers to find decent housing they can afford.

A significant part of this real and serious problem is that federal housing policy does not adequately address the housing needs of lower income families and individuals. It’s about more than just the amount of money spent on HUD and USDA housing programs; it’s about how housing policy and tax policy combine to put tax dollars where they simply aren’t needed.

The mortgage interest deduction is a part of the tax code that allows some homeowners to deduct a portion of the interest they pay on their mortgage from their taxable income. The way the deduction is structured, the more money you earn, and the larger your mortgage, the bigger the tax deduction you will receive. According to the Office of Management and Budget, the mortgage interest deduction comes at a cost to the government of over $100 billion in 2013 alone. The entire HUD budget is less than half this amount.

But the problem isn’t just that one single subsidy to homeownership is larger than every other federal housing program combine. As this article in The Atlantic Cities shows, there is a geographic disparity in federal housing policy, as well. A small number of metropolitan areas on the coasts grab the majority of the benefit of the mortgage interest deduction, while those in the rest of the country benefit disproportionately little. To quote the article,

In 1999, the average subsidy per owner-occupied housing unit in the San Francisco/San Mateo/Redwood City metropolitan area was $26,385. In McAllen/Edinburg, Texas, on the other hand, it was $1,696. This is not the amount of interest these households deducted from their income on average. It’s the full amount they were able to save on their final tax bill (or, viewed from another angle, it’s the money the federal government didn’t receive as a result of subsidizing homeownership). About a third of this total directly comes from the mortgage interest deduction.

There is plenty of justification for making changes to federal housing policy generally, and to the mortgage interest deduction specifically. But the fact is, Americans love the mortgage interest deduction. We’ve come to value it so deeply that any discussion of making changes to it results in widespread fear that the government is trying to destroy the middle class.

It’s understandable that homeowners are protective of the mortgage interest deduction. Looking at the size of the savings our average San Francisco homeowner gained on her tax bill makes clear why: that’s a lot of money, and there are many people who could use a little more cash in their pockets right now. But the National Low Income Housing Coalition believes it is possible to rebalance federal housing policy and still retain tax benefits for the middle and lower-income Americans who really need it.

We propose a modification to the mortgage interest deduction that would make it available to all homeowners regardless of the amount of their mortgage, the size of their income or whether or not they itemize on their taxes. This proposal would also make mortgage interest tax breaks more available to homeowners in the wide swath of the country that isn’t benefiting much from the deduction right now. You can use our mortgage interest tax reform calculator to see how housing tax reform would impact your tax bill.

As an organization solely concerned with the housing needs of the lowest income Americans, we’re less interested in what our proposal would do for homeowners than in what it would do for low income renters. Our proposal would save the federal government around $30 billion a year that could be directed to programs that make housing affordable to extremely low income people. By funding the National Housing Trust Fund with savings from housing tax reform, we can accomplish the housing-related goals policymakers have for mortgage interest tax breaks while also addressing the pressing issue of homelessness. We think this is a win for the middle class, lower income people, and communities at large. Over 500 organizations from across the country agree.