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As the nation’s affordable housing crisis continues to worsen, a multi-pronged approach from local, state and federal officials is needed, experts say.

Sarah Saadian, senior vice president of public policy and field organizing for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said that although low-income housing struggles aren’t necessarily new, the pandemic highlighted the connection between health and housing and how important housing stability is to people’s livelihood.

Saadian said that realization has “further fueled” pressure on policymakers to respond. Tackling the affordable housing crisis, though, requires a comprehensive approach at every level of government because each has different tools available to use.

Over the past month, reporters from CNHI News nationwide have sought to examine the issues surrounding affordable housing, who is most impacted by a lack of it and what solutions states and communities have implemented in this multipart special report.

Across the country, state lawmakers are proposing various strategies to increase housing access. There’s been a “really significant increase” from communities in looking at local affordable housing initiatives, Saadian said.

In November 2022, there were nearly 100 ballot measures across the country aimed at devoting resources to affordable housing, addressing homelessness, giving tenants more protections, changing zoning and land-use laws, creating more housing development or regulating short-term rentals, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

An analysis from the group found that voters supported rent stabilization in every community, and nationwide, voters approved nearly $2 billion in affordable housing-related bonds.

“A significant number passed, and I think a lot of it has to do with coming out of the pandemic and sort of more realization that housing is so central to people’s lives and that there’s an enormous power imbalance between landlords and renters,” Saadian said.

Becoming more aware of the problem

Meanwhile, state lawmakers across the country are wrestling with how to improve housing access.

“I think policymakers are more aware of the problem now and are looking at solutions,” said Sabine Brown, a senior policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute. “I know here in Oklahoma, there’s some legislation that’s been proposed to help address the shortage, but it’s going to take us a while to get there because the problem has been around for a while.”

In Oklahoma, both Republicans and Democrats are examining legislation to help with the issue, Brown said. There was a bill that would create new programs to support the development of affordable housing, authored by a Republican. Another bill, authored by a Democrat, would increase the state’s affordable housing tax credit from $4 million to $10 million.

Texas is also looking to tackle its affordable housing crisis, which experts say ranks in the top 6 nationally. Lawmakers are considering legislation that would incentivize the building of additional housing; one plan helps builders receive permits faster.

But this year, Texas lawmakers have focused their efforts on property tax reform. They say this will allow more Texans to stay in their homes, especially those on fixed incomes.

“This is off-the-charts, incredible property tax relief for millions of Texas homeowners,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. “This is tax relief that Texans have been crying out for, and we're going to deliver it this year.”

An Indiana housing task force last year recommended more than a dozen policies aimed at solving Indiana’s affordable housing crisis. Recommendations included tax incentives for first-time and low-income homebuyers, state funding for housing infrastructure, incentives for local governments to relax zoning and design standard regulations, and addressing substandard housing.

One measure poised to pass this session would establish a residential housing infrastructure assistance program and revolving fund. But the Legislature rejected requests that would have added a priority to the fund for municipalities willing to develop housing units at prices affordable to low-income residents, drawing criticism from housing advocates.

Georgia legislators also discussed affordable housing this year, but most proposals failed to pass. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has acknowledged the need for continued improvement in quality housing.

Pennsylvania legislators are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid for multiyear affordable housing initiatives. They’ve implemented a $125 million loan-forgiveness program to help landlords and homeowners make deteriorating units safe, livable and energy-efficient. A $150 million fund has been set aside to help offset inflated pandemic-related costs of building multifamily rental properties.

Important conversations needed

Saadian said states need to have “real, important conversations about how to use limited resources best.”

Her group encourages communities to look at solutions that can be done without additional resources, like zoning changes, to support more market-rate housing for middle-income renters better and to think about how to target resources better to build or make housing affordable in areas where the private sector can’t.

“The reason why we have a housing crisis, to begin with, is because incomes are not high enough to afford housing costs and because there’s a severe shortage of housing at the very low end of the market,” Saadian said.

Ultimately, major investments are needed at the federal level, she said. She said that rental assistance programs need to be expanded, and additional programs are needed to incentivize increased housing supply for the lowest-income residents.

There also need to be investments in the National Housing Trust Fund, public housing and other programs that build housing affordable to people with low incomes, Saadian said.

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