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Some Thoughts on Edsall's Op Ed in the NYT

The New York Times published an Op Ed by Thomas Edsall yesterday entitled “Where Should a Poor Family Live?” The article addresses the recent developments on where Federally subsidized affordable housing is or should be located, citing Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Inclusive Communities, the new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule and recent studies on the utilization of housing choice vouchers and its impact on families and children. Unfortunately, Edsall makes the mistake of conflating improving efforts to reverse historical patterns of segregation with a groundless view of the business of developing affordable housing.

Perhaps the most surprising allegation is that the location of LIHTC developments in high poverty areas is linked to the enrichment of organizations that develop and/or invest in affordable housing, akin to how the proverbial slumlord profits directly from taking rents from residents and not properly maintaining the physical asset. Only a basic understanding of how an affordable housing deal is structured is needed to understand that maximizing cash flow is not a driving consideration in the development of affordable housing. Developing affordable housing is a complex process of not only making the numbers work but collaborating with a wide array of governmental entities, and their rules, and local community officials and their residents. Ascribing a profit motivation to the development of affordable housing mostly or only in low income areas is simplistic. For example, the AFFH rule, which is expressly intended to put public housing authorities and other HUD grantees in the position of forcing local governments to allow development of more multifamily housing in more affluent areas, could actually be beneficial not only for low income residents seeking a change but also to developers seeking new opportunities in high-opportunity areas from which they have been historically excluded. 

The problem lies elsewhere. There are big outside obstacles to overcome if you want to develop affordable housing in affluent or high opportunity areas. Top among them are high land costs, local community opposition and current IRS regulations that direct new LIHTC units go to places with the most urgent need, i.e., low-income neighborhoods.  The article ignores the patchy history of executive enforcement of the Fair Housing Act and the lack of clarity afforded by the number of NIMBY-type court cases over the years (City of Cuyahoga Falls, Village of Arlington  Heights, Kelo). Edsall also fails to address the “double bind” problem Justice Kennedy writes about in Inclusive Communities that could arise from shifting Federal resources to high-opportunity areas, where there are fewer minorities, and less need for affordable housing.  Concentrating affordable housing in non-minority areas raises the same questions of discrimination as concentrating affordable housing in minority areas.

Edsall conflates “poverty” with the “low income” targeting of the LIHTC program, which are very different statistical descriptions of people and needs.*  He also oversimplifies the cultural and sociological complexities of regional relocation by low income families and  discounts or ignores the importance of revitalization of distressed communities and neighborhoods addressed by existing programs like the Public Housing Mixed Finance program, the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, the Neighborhood Stabilization Program and preservation of older assisted multifamily rental housing generally. There are low income families already in public housing, older assisted housing in need of repositioning or distressed neighborhoods, all who need assistance and our desire to improve these communities and not abandon them.

In the end, ad hominem attacks and factual non sequiturs just do not amount to a useful critique of housing policies, and should not divert attention from the real and urgent need to remove obstacles to developing affordable housing in all neighborhoods across America.

*The 2015 Poverty Guidelines published annually by HHS set $24,250 annual income for a 4 person family, while the LIHTC program targets households at 60% of AMI, which in DC, for example, for a 4 person family in 2015 is $65,520 and in NYC is $51,780.

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