Why housing is infrastructure

“Miami, Florida”
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President Biden announced last week that senators have reached an agreement on an infrastructure bill, which would invest $1.2 trillion to improve America’s aging infrastructure. 

Republicans have pushed to fund only what they see as “traditional” infrastructure improvements. This includes things like roads, bridges, railways, airports, and ferry terminals. It also includes improving and extending water and sewer systems, as well as upgrading and extending the electrical grid.

Biden’s American Jobs Plan originally proposed $213 billion for affordable housing. According to the White House, the funding would “produce, preserve, and retrofit more than 2 million affordable and sustainable places to live.” Included in this amount is $40 billion for Public Housing improvements and repairs. 

Housing funding will not likely be included in the compromise infrastructure bill. Instead, Democratic leadership is preparing to deal with President Biden’s domestic agenda on two tracks. They will work to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but also work on a budget reconciliation bill that does not need Republican support.

The reconciliation bill will include the child care, healthcare, and education proposals from the President’s American Families Plan, plus the infrastructure items from his American Jobs Plan that do not make it into the bipartisan bill. This will likely include new funding for affordable housing.

Many Republicans, and some Democrats, do not think that affordable housing funds should be included in an infrastructure bill. As the clock ticks down on efforts to negotiate a bipartisan infrastructure bill, it is important that all members of Congress understand that affordable housing is indeed infrastructure that has to be built, maintained and improved.

Here are some thoughts from the Affordable Housing Online team about why affordable housing should be included in any infrastructure funding package.

Chris Holden, Senior Housing Analyst:

The federal government has invested billions of dollars over decades to develop and maintain affordable housing. It provides shelter for the most vulnerable people in our society, including seniors, persons with disabilities, and families with children. It is literally a physical safety net that represents our efforts to live up to the goal of the 1949 Housing Act, that every American should have a safe, decent, and affordable place to call home.

Like roads and bridges, affordable housing is a physical asset that serves a broader social purpose. It is a benefit for the public that the private sector has not been able to produce without subsidies or incentives.

The federal government long ago made a commitment to provide affordable housing to those in need. But over the last couple of decades, funding to operate and maintain affordable housing has fallen well short of the need. The existing public housing stock is very old. Many properties need extensive repairs. Most properties need safety, accessibility, and energy efficiency upgrades.

Joshua Cappell, Lead Developer:

Housing and infrastructure have always been interconnected. Less than a generation ago, one of the largest public works projects in American history funded highways built through poor and minority communities. This effectively segregated entire cities by race and income to facilitate suburban commuters. Recent efforts to reverse impacts of past infrastructure investments show the need to prioritize housing in current and future infrastructure planning.

Chris:

Biden’s infrastructure plan recognizes the impact of historic patterns of housing segregation. The plan calls for 40% of climate and clean infrastructure investments to benefit disadvantaged communities. It also calls for investments in rural communities and places impacted by the shift to a green energy economy, like coal mining towns.

Local governments can also access a competitive grant program for community improvements. To be eligible for the funds, though, they have to demonstrate they have taken steps to remove exclusionary zoning laws.

Nathan Brunet, Content Director:

It irks me on a basic level that there are politicians who refuse to acknowledge that traditions evolve throughout history. Many senators aren’t even willing to hear arguments about why housing is infrastructure. Senators like Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania are stomping their feet on the general stance that “housing is housing…housing is not infrastructure.”

This line of thinking does nothing but halt the progression of our society. This is true for events as trivial as modern professional baseball players breaking the league’s traditional unwritten rules. But it is even more important to get over this hump for something with such an impact like considering housing as infrastructure.

As Chris and Josh have already explained, there are great arguments that relate the building and upkeep of our nation’s housing stock to improving infrastructure. It is unacceptable for a senator to dismiss this argument only on the grounds that housing traditionally has never been considered infrastructure.

Many communities are deteriorating while Senators refuse to take action.

Chris:

Nathan has a good point, and Congress has already recognized the link between housing and infrastructure when it created the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. This program has been around for decades. While it primarily funds public infrastructure projects like water, sewer, and sidewalk projects; it also funds libraries, town halls, and affordable housing.

Investing in federal housing repairs and upgrades is a major infrastructure improvement. These properties play a central role in their communities, and it will make them more safe, sustainable, and livable. Affordable housing will lead the way, providing energy efficient homes and public spaces that link residents to their communities.

President Biden’s investment in affordable housing will also help in the fight against climate change. The American Jobs Plan  took a cue from the Green New Deal for Public Housing proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Much of the public housing improvement funding would be targeted to energy efficiency improvements. Residential properties contribute around 20% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Biden’s proposals to combat climate change will also likely be included in the Democrats’ reconciliation bill.

Most legislators have come to see solar, wind, and other green energy sources as legitimate infrastructure investments. The idea is that weaning America off of fossil fuel dependence will make our country more competitive for decades to come. Why not start this work upgrading affordable housing stock? We have already invested public funds in building these properties, why not have them lead the way in making our communities healthier and more economically competitive?

Affordable Housing Online has a diverse staff with different backgrounds and perspectives. Not all of us feel that affordable housing is important enough that it should have its own legislation.

Robin Lovelace, Policy Analyst:

I think housing should not be included in an infrastructure bill. It should be a stand-alone bill with the focus on awarding grants and funding to local governments, non-profits, and Public Housing Agencies that can deliver innovative affordable housing for homeless persons and families, and low-income families.

The bill should include money to tear down America’s oldest and worst federal housing developments and replace them with state-of the-art housing that incorporates green energy, childcare facilities, social service offices, gyms and even cafeterias. The goals would be to create thriving neighborhoods where old broken down projects once stood.

Also, money should be spent to renovate single family homes in neighborhoods that are ripe for gentrification. This would allow lower-income families to not only stay in their neighborhoods but stay in improved, healthier neighborhoods.

President Truman said these words in his state of the union address in 1945 when he presented his Fair Deal proposals and much of what he said 76 years ago is still true:

The housing shortage continues to be acute. As an immediate step, the Congress should enact the provisions for low-rent public housing, slum clearance, farm housing, and housing research which I have repeatedly recommended. The number of low rent public housing units provided for in the legislation should be increased to 1 million units in the next seven years. Even this number of units will not begin to meet our need for new housing.

What we need is a bill like the Housing Act of 1949, which greatly expanded our nation’s affordable housing projects.

Along with passing this bill, our government should ensure the execution of the provisions of the bill be handled in an efficient and productive way. Money should be provided in decades to come, to keep new housing maintained and vital. Keeping housing as part of a massive infrastructure bill will give its opponents more parts to pick on and criticize.

In this current political climate, a stand alone housing bill will be difficult to get passed, but it would be more likely to succeed, in my opinion.

Chris:

I agree with Robin that affordable housing is important enough that it should be tackled on its own. I also believe, though, that it is appropriate to include it in an infrastructure plan. It is a bricks and mortar asset that is critical to meeting every community’s need to have shelter for all its residents.

In the current political climate, new affordable housing legislation has no chance of passing on its own. Although the president has pursued negotiations with Republicans for a bipartisan infrastructure bill, Republicans have vowed to oppose most of what President Biden has proposed. They are especially against any tax increases on large corporations or the richest individuals.

The infrastructure bill is considered must-pass legislation by Democrats. They are already beginning the early steps to pass an infrastructure bill through the budget reconciliation process. As long as all Democrats in the Senate support the infrastructure package, it could pass without Republican votes under reconciliation. Bipartisanship only works when both sides negotiate in good faith.

Josh:

To Chris’ point, I think the most optimistic outcome at this point is that a reigned-in bipartisan infrastructure bill will be brought to the senate floor, while other campaign priorities are addressed through the budget reconciliation process.

If that’s the case, I would advocate for including housing provisions in each process. Funding new housing construction, weatherizing and retrofitting existing units, and investing in walkable and transit-oriented development projects belong in the same conversation as highway repair, and energy improvement programs.

Legislation to address chronic underfunding for tenant-based rental assistance, services for the disabled and elderly, and ending homelessness can be addressed in the simple majority budgeting process if the right to secure and affordable housing is still viewed as a partisan issue.

The Housing Act of 1949 is a great example of why rethinking how we address housing is important. The act was supposed to help reverse the economic decline of American cities after post-war suburbanization, but critics see the opposite impact. Between “slum clearance,” beautification initiatives, and massive — but poorly planned — new construction displaced communities, increased housing costs, and further divided suburban and urban America.

Nathan:

I’m in agreement that a standalone bill in today’s political climate would be doomed to fail. But, Robin brings up a great point that there should be an effort to oversee the progress of any new housing legislation. Especially considering the unforeseen issues that Josh brought up, an oversight committee should be established without argument.

Our officials certainly have a lot of experience to look back on. And whether it’s a single committee or multiple, this effort could be a significant gamechanger in the future of affordable housing development in America.

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