CRF Blog

The Deep, Uniquely American Roots of Our Affordable-Housing Crisis

by Bill Hayes

In The Deep, Uniquely American Roots of Our Affordable-Housing Crisis for The Nation, Bryce Covert explains how the crisis developed.

Nationwide, there are just 35 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 extremely low-income families — those who either live in poverty or earn less than 30 percent of the median income in their area. It’s a problem in every major city and in every state. Nationally, nearly half of renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

It may feel as though the country has always failed to offer an affordable home to everyone who needs one. But in 1960, only about a quarter of renters spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing. In 1970, a 300,000-unit surplus of affordable rental homes meant that nearly every American could find a place to live. “When there was an adequate supply of housing for low-income people, we did not have widespread homelessness in this country,” says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. At the time, “the word ‘homelessness’ was relatively unknown,” says the Rev. David Bloom, a longtime advocate for the homeless, who adds that when he first used a word processor in the early 1980s, the spell-check didn’t even recognize the word. Today, there’s a deficit of more than 7.2 million rental homes inexpensive enough for the lowest-income people to afford, and nearly 554,000 Americans are homeless on any given night.

How did we get here? The mismatch between the number of people needing homes and the amount of affordable housing available isn’t unique to this moment in history, or even to the United States. Matthew G. Lasner, associate professor at Hunter College’s Urban Policy and Planning Department, describes housing shortages as a “product of industrial capitalism. The minute we see people flooding in from the countryside in search of work to cities, we see housing inequality emerging.” As their populations became urbanized, countries like Britain and Germany started to experiment with government subsidies for housing around the time of the First World War, ultimately developing programs that provided housing for many people, not just for the poorest. But despite the efforts of Progressive Era reformers, the idea failed to take root in the United States. [more]