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U.S. Needs to Get Its House in Order to Help Shelter All Its People

July 31, 2002|THOMAS M. MENINO | Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

As housing costs continue to rise far faster than incomes, the need to address the nation's affordable-housing crisis is no longer a topic of conversation just in Silicon Valley or the Big Apple or inside the Beltway. Housing has become a major economic concern and deserves the attention of our national leaders.

Everyone has a role to play in recognizing and acting to alleviate this crisis. The poor, the homeless and low-income working families continue to struggle to find decent affordable housing. What is new is the effect of the housing crisis on the nation's middle-income families.

* The number of middle-income families spending more than half of their income on housing increased by 74% between 1997 and 1999. More than 14 million Americans are now forced to spend more than half of their income on housing.

* In no state today does a full-time minimum-wage job enable most families to pay fair market rent for a moderate two-bedroom apartment. Congress would have to double today's minimum wage in order to enable families leaving the welfare rolls to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

* Janitors are able to afford rent on a one-bedroom apartment in only six of the 60 largest housing markets in the country. Retail salespeople are able to afford rent in only three of these markets.

* Teachers and police officers cannot afford to buy a median-priced home in most major housing markets.

* According to a recent poll, 41% of Americans believe that the lack of affordable homes is a very big or fairly big problem, slightly more than the 39% who express similar concerns about health-care costs.

Whatever your monthly rent or mortgage might be, the bottom line is that housing costs are rising much faster than incomes, leaving less money for general consumer spending and savings--both essential ingredients for an overall healthy economy.

Still, the U.S. has no federal housing policy, and it doesn't appear that we will any time soon. Congress and the administration have failed to enact any significant measures to address this crisis.

Housing Secretary Mel Martinez recently told the nation's mayors that "housing issues are predominantly local issues" and that the "solution to meeting the nation's affordable-housing needs will not come out of Washington."

No one can deny the important role that local governments, businesses and nonprofits must play in meeting the housing crisis. Yet it is equally essential for the federal government to address this problem. Drastic housing budget cuts in the 1980s were followed by small budget increases in the 1990s, spurred in part by the rising cost of government-funded housing vouchers. Few resources were devoted to producing new housing.

For two decades now, the federal government has walked away from its obligation to preserve the housing we have and build the housing we need. As our mothers taught us, ignoring a problem will not make it go away.

America's mayors are united in recognizing that there is an affordable-housing crisis and in demanding action. Working together, we have proposed a number of steps, including:

* creating a national homeownership tax credit to make buying a home more affordable;

* establishing a national affordable-housing trust fund to provide a steady stream of revenue to deal with critical housing needs, as Los Angeles and more than 200 other cities do;

* promoting expanded housing assistance by employers in the form of down payment help, low-interest loans and home-buyer education.

These proposals alone may not solve our affordable-housing crisis, but they will help. And, equally important, they reflect the mayors' belief that affordable housing is a national priority.

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