How does one square the messages about housing affordability from the federal government?
On the one hand, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says people who spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs are "housing-cost burdened." That's why the government has traditionally helped subsidize housing for low-income people who would otherwise be priced out of the housing market.
On the other hand, the agency said this spring it intends to change the rules to raise the housing burden to 35 percent of a household's gross income. HUD Secretary Ben Carson says the lower subsidies would encourage people to find jobs, or better-paying jobs.
Viewed from a bureaucratic distance, perhaps, the idea has a certain logic. But viewed through the prism of low-income households, the change heaps a heavier burden on people who already struggle to buy groceries and pay utilities. In the words of one critic, the leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., it is part of the administration's "war on poor people."
The proposed rule change, which would need approval from Congress, would raise rents for low-income people in the 100 largest urban areas by an average of 20 percent — six times greater than the growth in average earnings. In Rhode Island, according to an analysis done by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for The Associated Press, affected households would see their annual rent increase by an average of $1,430.
HUD says it intends to exempt seniors and disabled people from the changes, but advocates say they still would be affected by changing rules about deductible costs.
More pertinent to the debate is another statistic: The analysis determined that 8.3 million people would be affected by the decreased subsidies, and more than 3 million of those people are children.
As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities puts it: "The typical affected household is a mother with two children with an annual income of $2,400 — just $200 per month. After paying rent under this proposal, the family would have only $50 for necessities like clothing, personal-care items, diapers, or school supplies, as well as food or medical needs that aren't met by other assistance."
In other words, the proposed policy could push low-income people more deeply into poverty and even homelessness. That is why Congress should push back, recognizing the damage the plan could wreak among society's most vulnerable.
The savings that would be generated by the proposed rule change — which HUD did not estimate when it announced the plan — are negligible in the shadow of a tax-cut package that will add $1.9 trillion to the national debt.
Why argue about a change in rules that boosts how much a household must pay in rent from 30 percent to 35 percent? Consider HUD's own explanation, which was still visible on its website this month: "High housing cost burdens are associated with negative life outcomes such as declines in mental health, reduced parental enrichment spending and cognitive achievement for low- and moderate-income children, and reduced educational attainment among children."
HUD officials should take another look at those words.
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