Putting the “Public” back in Public Housing

The National Football League thrives on the talent of young stars whose incredible stories about overcoming adversity in their lives make them exceptional. One of those players is Deshaun Watson, quarterback for the Houston Texans.

Before becoming the second highest paid Quarterback in the league, Watson lived in Gainesville, Georgia with his mother and three siblings in “cramped government housing.”[1] Watson recounts being surrounded by “drug dealers and gang members.”[2] After volunteering to build houses for others, Deshaun’s mother qualified for a home for her own family. Warrick Dunn, a retired NFL running back, provided further assistance by furnishing the entire home for the Watsons. Dunn, with an equally inspirational story, founded a charity which provides down payment assistance, furnishes homes for single parents, and teaches financial literacy lessons to new homeowners.[3] Due to the hard work of his mother and the immense philanthropic efforts of private entities, Watson spent his formative years in an affordable, sanitary, and safe home.

On its face, Deshaun Watson’s story is an inspirational one; unfortunately, it is also the exception and not the rule. His story represents the failure of the American public housing system.  With the passage of the Housing Act of 1949, the United States made a commitment to achieve “the realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family .”[4] 71 years later, the priorities of the Congress has changed markedly. While both parties recognize the affordable housing crisis, conservatives have posited that providing affordable housing should be left to the free market, with the government only intervening to encourage private innovation. In 2016, Republicans advocated in their platform for “scaling back the federal role in the housing market.”[5] Republican presidents as far back as Presidents Nixon and Reagan have lambasted the government’s role in providing affordable housing, calling public housing “monstrous, depressing places – rundown, overcrowded, and crime ridden.”[6] The fervent opposition to public housing specifically, and the federal government’s role in providing affordable housing generally, has warped the perception of “government housing” as dangerous, unsanitary, and unfit for habitation.

While the thinly veiled coded language of Nixon and subsequent conservatives does not fully capture the state of public housing in America, their consistent attacks have led to a circumscribed role for the federal government in making housing more affordable. The number of Public Housing units have fallen from 1.5 million units to just over 1 million.[7] The Housing Choice Voucher program is so underfunded that working families have to wait over ten years in some cities just to get on the voucher waitlist.[8] Even the bi-partisan Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program costs the government $9 billion in tax collections annually and does not guarantee the housing units created will remain affordable when the required compliance periods are over.[9] Taken together, the federal government has abandoned its goal to ensure every American had access to a “decent home.”

This rollback in federal intervention has left families just like Watson’s out in the cold. 18.5 million low-income households pay more than half of their income on housing costs.[10] Nearly 500,000 people are homeless in the United States.[11] Approximately 75% of low-income renters receive no federal assistance, despite qualifying for it.[12] Finally, at the same time that federal housing assistance has not kept pace with need, income levels for renters has not risen at the same levels as housing costs.[13] This problem has only been exacerbated by a grueling pandemic, which has shuddered the economy and left millions on the brink of eviction.[14]

While Deshaun Watson’s story is a testament to the bleak state of affordable housing, it is also a story of how an affordable, sanitary, and safe home can make a difference in a person’s life. Watson recounts his family moving into their new home as “the start of a better life.” Affordable housing allows families to spend money on other goods and services, such as education, health insurance, and retirement accounts. Stable housing “contributes to improved educational outcomes,” which is made even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic as students spend their time studying at home.[15]  Sanitary housing can “improve the health outcomes of low-income families – particularly children at risk for asthma,” which can also improve performance in school.[16]

Children facing the same obstacles Watson faced should not be at the mercy of Warrick Dunn or private organizations to help them find affordable housing. Congress must reinvigorate its commitment to achieve “. . . the realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home . . . every American family.”[17] Lawmakers can start by restoring and developing new public housing units, expanding the Housing Choice Voucher program, and expanding the LIHTC program.  Just as Watson used his opportunity to achieve his version of the American Dream, expanding access to affordable housing will allow America’s children to get an education, find a well-paying job, and break inextricable cycles of generational poverty. Watson admits that “the story of how I became the man that I am today can be told through the stories of the people who helped me along the way;” with a robust affordable housing program, the federal government can help others along their way to a more prosperous and productive life.[18]

 

[1] Deshaun Watson, What You See, The Players Tribune (Dec. 13, 2018), https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/deshaun-watson-texans-what-you-see

[2] Id.

[3] Warrick Dunn Charities, https://wdc.org/about-our-founder/# (last visited Sept. 20, 2020).

[4] 42 U.S.C. § 1441 (1949).

[5] Daniel Hertz, Where do the Parties Stand on Housing?, The American Conservative (July 28, 2016, 12:26 PM), https://www.theamericanconservative.com/urbs/where-do-the-parties-stand-on-housing/.

[6] Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law 37 (2017).

[7] Alex F. Schwartz, Housing Policy in the United States 165 (2015)

[8] See generally Andrew Aurand et al., The Long Wait for a Home, Housing Spotlight, Fall 2016 at 3 (reviewing the state of Public Housing and Housing Choice Voucher programs across the United States).

[9] Urban Institute and Brookings Institute Tax Policy Center, Key Elements of the U.S. Tax System, https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/briefing-book/what-low-income-housing-tax-credit-and-how-does-it-work (last visited Sept. 20, 2020).

[10] Enterprise Community Partners Tabulation of 2012 One-Year American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS), https://www.census. gov/acs/www/data_documentation/public_use_microdata_sample/.

[11]The Council of Economic Advisers, The State of Homelessness in America, (Sept. 2019), https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/The-State-of-Homelessness-in-America.pdf

[12] CBPP analysis of the 2013 American Housing Survey, https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/ahs.html (last visited Sept. 2020).

[13] Id.

[14] Jeff Ernsthausen, Despite Federal Ban, Landlords Are Still Moving to Evict People During the Pandemic, Pro Publica (April 16, 2020, 5:00 AM), https://www.propublica.org/article/despite-federal-ban-landlords-are-still-moving-to-evict-people-during-the-pandemic.

[15] Brennan, Maya. The Impacts of Affordable Housing on Education: A Research Summary. Insights from Housing Policy Research. Center for Housing Policy, May 2011, http://www.nhc.org/media/files/Insights_HousingAndEducationBrief.pdf.

[16] Akinbami, Lara, Jeanne Moorman, and Xiang Liu. Asthma Prevalence, Health Care Use, and Mortality: United States, 2005–2009. National Health Statistics Report. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, January 12, 2011, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr032.pdf.

[17] 42 U.S.C. § 1441 (1949).

[18] Deshaun Watson, What You See, The Players Tribune (Dec. 13, 2018), https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/deshaun-watson-texans-what-you-see.

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