Affordable housing advocates often say that housing is a human right—that everyone has the right to a home—but what does this looks like in terms of policy? Local, state, and federal governments have attempted a multitude of low-income affordable housing programs and initiatives, but there are really just three programs that come anywhere near the ideal of guaranteeing affordable housing to all, regardless of their income. These three programs—Public Housing, Housing Choice (“Section 8”) Vouchers, and HUD-Assisted Multifamily Housing—provide permanent, affordable housing to millions of low-income people without the minimum income requirements seen in many other housing programs. Tenants in these programs are guaranteed to pay no more than 30% of their income in rent and utilities, and anyone making below 80% of AMI (area median income) is eligible (although there are screening policies for former criminals and people with poor rental history). If a tenant’s monthly income is a $500 social security check, their rent (utilities included) is $150. If a tenant loses their income, they can immediately lower their rent to the “minimum rent” of $25, which can even be waived in certain cases that qualify as “financial hardship.” These programs, all administered by the federal housing agency HUD, are absolutely vital to housing low-income people, especially in high-cost cities like New York. However, in the past few decades, the federal government has effectively cut them off from any additional growth. In New York and other expensive cities, the stagnation in funding for these programs, along with persistent poverty levels and steady population growth has helped precipitate a grave affordable housing crisis, demonstrated most clearly by record levels of homelessness.
In New York City, there are 180,000 units of Public Housing and 120,000 families with Housing Choice Vouchers. These unit numbers have not grown in years and both programs have years-long waiting lists (in fact, NYCHA’s HCV waiting list has been closed since 2007). Still, the situation in HUD-Assisted Multifamily Housing—the least well known and smallest program of the three (although not by much)—is even more dire. The program has not only stagnated, it has lost large numbers of units. Once topping 100,000, the number of HUD Multifamily units in the city has fallen to about 70,000, with nearly all of this loss occurring in the past 20 years.[i] Under HUD-assisted Multifamily Housing programs, landlords get rent-subsidy contracts tied to their building that expire after a set amount of time. The programs were most active in the ‘60s to early ‘80s, and when many of the contracts expired after 30 or 40 years, landlords left the program in high numbers—especially in high-rent areas—and converted their buildings to market rentals or condos, displacing low-income tenants. In 1997, in an effort to curb this loss of units, Congress passed legislation that allowed owners to “mark-up-to-market” if they renew their building’s contract, increasing the rents of their subsidy to be comparable to the market rents of the area. To better protect tenants in buildings whose contracts expire, legislation was passed to provide tenants in this situation with voucher assistance to use in their building or elsewhere. Still, with New York City’s housing market hotter than ever, the temptation for landlords to shed their HUD contracts remains strong. And although tenants in opt-out buildings are protected from displacement by compensatory voucher assistance, once they move or pass away, their apartment becomes unregulated, further dwindling the city’s affordable housing stock.
In the early 1990s, the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT) was founded by HUD Multifamily Tenants in order to give tenants a platform for self-advocacy. Since then, the organization—which is the only nation-wide tenant union in the US—has been instrumental in expanding tenants’ rights and protecting tenants from displacement. Since the mid-2000s, UHAB organizers have been working closely with the National Alliance of HUD Tenants to preserve HUD-Assisted Multifamily Housing through tenant organizing and advocacy. In recent years, UHAB has greatly helped NAHT expand its capacity in New York City, recruiting tenant groups to affiliate with NAHT and empowering tenants to advocate on their own behalf to their landlords and HUD administrators for the preservation of this vital program. To learn more about the issues surrounding HUD Multifamily Housing and ways to get involved, visit NAHT’s website, www.saveourhomes.org, or the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, http://nlihc.org/issues/project-based.
[i] “Over 100,000 units” comes from the Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy’s “State of New York City’s Subsidized Housing: 2011” research on HUD Project-Based Rental Assistance (pages 28-29). “About 70,000” comes from my own analysis of HUD’s current “Multifamily Assistance and Section 8 Contracts” database, publicly available on hud.gov.