A Decent Place to Live

August 02, 1992

Five years ago, a national task force led by developer James W. Rouse found that housing problems were creating a crisis in )) many parts of the country. The chronic shortage of affordable housing for lower-income people was causing a marked increase in homelessness and driving up rents and home prices, leading to conditions in some neighborhoods that could accurately be described as "domestic terrorism."

That report, "A Decent Place to Live," became the blueprint for the National Affordable Housing Act of 1990 -- the first major, stand-alone federal housing legislation in more than a decade. Unfortunately, the legislation has gotten only about half of its authorization funds.

Five years later, conditions are even worse. Whole cities are on edge, wary of more explosions like those in Los Angeles earlier this year. More Americans than ever are either homeless or only one crisis away from the streets.

So it is fitting that the Enterprise Foundation, which Mr. Rouse heads, has updated the 1987 report, highlighting the importance of housing to the nation's overall health and suggesting actions to constructively address the housing crisis.

The new report details the low status given to affordable housing in the nation's spending priorities. For instance, while 25 cents of every federal dollar goes to defense, only one cent is spent on direct federal outlays for low-income housing assistance. (Meanwhile, through the tax deduction for home mortgage interest, homeowners enjoy four times the amount of housing subsidies provided to low-income Americans.) Even the proven success of the low-income housing tax credit has been put at risk; caught in partisan wrangling, the tax credit expired June 30.

Federal assistance for housing is essential to making any significant dent in the nation's housing crisis, but the private and nonprofit sectors could also play a bigger role, especially if government consciously encouraged innovative investment tools.

The Enterprise Foundation unabashedly sees decent housing as the essential platform people need in order to climb out of poverty. But an equally strong argument can be made that housing should be used as an engine to drive the larger economy. Either way you look at it, this country ought to be devoting a greater proportion of its resources on something as basic as housing. More to the point, it can't afford not to.

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