Who is affordable housing for? Biden Build Back Better edition

The Biden administration includes affordable housing as an important part of the Build Back Better initiative. Under the heading “The most significant effort to bring down costs and strengthen the middle class in generations,” here is how whitehouse.gov describes the affordable housing plans:

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Makes the single largest and most comprehensive investment in affordable housing in history.

The framework will enable the construction, rehabilitation, and improvement of more than 1 million affordable homes, boosting housing supply and reducing price pressures for renters and homeowners. It will address the capital needs of the public housing stock in big cities and rural communities all across America and ensure it is not only safe and habitable but healthier and more energy efficient as well. It will make a historic investment in rental assistance, expanding vouchers to hundreds of thousands of additional families. And, it includes one of the largest investments in down payment assistance in history, enabling hundreds of thousands of first-generation homebuyers to purchase their first home and build wealth. This legislation will create more equitable communities, through investing in community-led redevelopments projects in historically under-resourced neighborhoods and removing lead paint from hundreds of thousands of homes, as well as by incentivizing state and local zoning reforms that enable more families to reside in higher opportunity neighborhoods.

There is certainly a need for affordable housing throughout the United States as well as in specific places. What interests me at the moment here is the references to how this investment in affordable housing will benefit the middle class. The whole package is aimed at the middle class. The introduction states, “President Biden promised to rebuild the backbone of the country – the middle class – so that this time everyone comes along.”

On one hand, affordable housing is important to the middle class. For decades, homeownership has been a marker of being in the middle-class. The postwar suburban housing boom was driven in part by attainable mortgages. This middle-class homeownership is then often related to a number of middle-class goals. Since housing is such a big expense in many household budgets, having cheaper housing enables spending in other areas.

On the other hand, many people need housing assistance, not just the middle class. Middle class is a broad category and some in that group have plenty of resources (this is a little different in high housing cost areas). Housing is foundational need as good stable shelter is connected to a number of other positive outcomes. If this money is aimed at the middle class, will it go to educated young professionals or older downsizers (as it sometimes discussed in suburban communities)? Or, would it be more needed for those who work lower-wage wages or have fewer family and community resources to draw on?

Perhaps the devil is in the details and where exactly this money goes. Or, middle-class here is intentionally broad as many Americans like to think of themselves even if their circumstances suggest they are not and some Americans are averse to resources directed to narrower groups. Regardless, if the plan comes to fruition, it will be worth seeing whether these efforts can make a significant dent in the affordable housing needs in the United States.

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