In its preamble to the 1949 Housing Act, Congress declared its goal of “a decent home in a suitable living environment for every American family.” In the more than 60 years since this legislation was passed, the federal government has helped fund the construction and rehabilitation of more than 5 million housing units for low-income households and provided rental vouchers to nearly 2 million additional families. Yet, the nation’s housing problems remain acute. In 2017, 44.7 million households lived in physically deficient housing, spent 30 percent or more of their income on housing, or were homeless (U.S. Census Bureau 2018
; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2018). Put differently, about 113 million Americans—around 35 percent of the nation’s population and more than triple the 28.5 million lacking health insurance in 2017 (Berchick, Hood, & Barnett 2018
)—confronted serious housing problems or had no housing at all.1
This book tells the story of how the United States has tried to address the nation’s housing problems. It looks at the primary policies and programs designed to make decent and affordable housing available to Americans of modest means. It examines the strengths and weaknesses of these policies and programs and the challenges that still remain. The book takes a broad view of housing policy, focusing not only on specific housing subsidy programs, such as public housing, but also on the federal income tax code and regulations affecting mortgage lending, land use decisions, real estate transactions, and other activities integral to the housing market. Some of these broader aspects of housing policy provide financial incentives for investments in affordable housing, others attempt to make housing available to low-income and minority households and communities by penalizing discriminatory practices and through other regulatory interventions.
Put simply, then, this book is about policies and programs designed to help low-income and other disadvantaged individuals and households access decent and affordable housing. It examines programs and policies that subsidize housing for low-income households or that attempt to break down institutional barriers, such as discriminatory practices in the real estate industry that impede access to housing.
The book is intended to be a general overview of housing policy. It is beyond its scope to delve deeply into programmatic details or to cover all aspects of the field in equal depth. The focus is on federal and, to a lesser degree, state and local programs and policies that subsidize housing for low-income households or otherwise attempt to make housing accessible to this population. Much less attention is given to policies concerned with the physical aspects of housing, such as design standards and building regulations—except when they are explicitly employed to promote affordable housing. The book does not examine in detail the operation of housing markets or provide a comprehensive legislative history of housing policy.
Although the field of housing policy is relatively small—especially in comparison to such areas as health care and education—it is fragmented and specialized. Most of the field’s literature is technical and focused on particular subtopics, such as public housing redevelopment, the expiration of federal housing subsidy contracts, mortgage lending regulation, homelessness, racial discrimination, and, most recently, mortgage foreclosure. Although these studies certainly cover key topics in housing policy, they do so at greater length, at a higher level of detail, and with more technical jargon than is desirable for a general introduction to the field. I hope this text can serve as a guide to housing policy and provide a point of departure to more specialized readings.
Few things intersect with and influence as many aspects of life as housing does: it is far more than shelter from the elements. As home, housing is the primary setting for family and domestic life, a place of refuge and relaxation from the routines of work and school, a private space. It is also loaded with symbolic value, as a marker of status and an expression of style. Housing is also valued for its location, for the access it provides to schools, parks, transportation, and shopping; and for the opportunity to live in the neighborhood of one’s choice. Housing is also a major asset for homeowners, the most widespread form of personal wealth.
Although good housing in a good neighborhood is certainly no guarantee against tragedy or misfortune, inadequate housing increases one’s vulnerability to a wide range of troubles (Hernandez & Swope 2019
; Taylor 2018
). Physically deficient housing is associated with many health hazards. Ingestion of lead paint by children can lead to serious learning disabilities and behavioral problems. Dampness, mold, and cold can cause asthma, allergies, and other respiratory problems, as can rodent and cockroach infestations. Inadequate or excessive heat can raise the risk of health problems such as cardiovascular disease (Acevedo-Garcia & Osypuk 2008; Bratt 2000; Cohen 2011; Kreiger & Higgens 2002; Lubell, Crain, & Cohen 2007; Lubell et al. 2011; Newman 2008a, 2008b).
Research on the link between housing conditions and mental health is less extensive, but also indicates adverse consequences from inadequate or crowded conditions. Unstable housing conditions that cause families to move frequently are stressful and often interfere with education and employment (Been et al. 2010
; Desmond & Kimbro 2015
; Lubell, Crain, & Cohen 2007
; Lubell & Brennan 2007
; Rothstein 2000
). When low-income families face high rent burdens, they have little money left to meet other needs. Vulnerability to crime is strongly influenced by residential location. People who live in distressed neighborhoods face a greater risk of being robbed, assaulted—or worse—than inhabitants of more affluent areas (Bratt 2000
Perhaps the importance of housing for the well-being of individuals and families is brought into sharpest relief in light of the depredations of homelessness. The homeless are at much greater risk of physical and mental illness, substance abuse, assault, and, in the case of children, frequent and prolonged absences from school. The mere lack of a mailing address makes it immeasurably more difficult to apply for jobs or public assistance, or to enroll children in school (Bassuk & Olivet 2012
; Bingham, Green, & White 1987
; Cunningham 2009
; Hoch 1998
). One of the many insights of Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted
) is that eviction and homelessness are both a consequence and cause of poverty. Poverty puts people at risk of becoming homeless, but homelessness itself can drag people down into poverty. The loss of one’s home, or even the threat of homelessness posed by eviction proceedings, can make it extremely difficult to keep or find a job. People who experience evictions and homelessness as children are especially likely live in poverty as adults.
As a major part of the national economy and the predominant land use, housing affects the environment profoundly. For one, it is a major source of carbon dioxide (CO2
) and other greenhouse gas emissions, the principal cause of global warming. Residential heating, cooling, and electrical
consumption alone accounted for 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2018 (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2020
: Table ES-14). Housing also accounts for a major portion of the greenhouse gases generated by transportation, which comprised 36 percent of total emissions in 2018 (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2020
: ES-13; see also Ewing & Rong 2008
). “Household travel,” as explained by the Federal Highway Administration, “accounts for the vast majority (over 80 pe...