House Financial Services Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Public Housing

The House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development, and Insurance held a remote hearing on March 24 on “Preserving a Lifeline: Examining Public Housing in a Pandemic.” The hearing addressed the critical need to increase the availability of public housing and ensure that the current stock remains safe for families to live in.

Hearing witnesses included Georgi Banna, director of policy and program development at the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials; Brian Gage, executive director of the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority; Tamir Mohamud, commissioner and vice-president of the Minneapolis High-Rise Representative Council; Oscar Durán, executive director of the Municipal Housing Agency of Council Bluffs; Michael Hendrix, director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute.

Witnesses offered testimony and answered questions on increasing federal funding for public housing, allowing public housing authorities (PHAs) more flexibility to handle state and local issues, and addressing the growing affordable housing needs in the United States.

Chairman of the Subcommittee, Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), began his opening testimony on a brief history of public housing, his personal experience living in public housing and some of its poor conditions. Chairman Cleaver went on to state that we are still seeing challenges that existed in the affordability housing crisis in the past:

“In the year 2021, it is unfortunate but a reality nonetheless that the national affordability housing challenges that gave rise to the need of public housing continue to persist. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the United States has a shortage of roughly 7 million rental homes that are affordable and available to extremely low-income renters.”

The chairman referred to NLIHC’s The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes, an annual report that presents data on the affordable housing supply and housing cost burdens at the national, state, and metropolitan levels. The report also examines the demographics, disability and work status, and other characteristics of extremely low-income households most impacted by the national shortage of affordable and available rental homes. Chairman Cleaver went on to cite statistics from The Gap for his hometown, Kansas City, MO, where 84% of extremely low-income renter households are housing cost burdened. He continued, “To ensure affordability, rent for public housing residents is generally kept at 30% of household income, but if you are poor, that 30% can wipe you out. Public housing is critical infrastructure.”

Ranking Member Representative Steve Stivers (R-OH) emphasized the need for private investors to have a stake in affordable housing and for reducing the benefits cliff in public housing, building self-sufficiency for families in public housing programs, and creating flexibility for state and local agencies to address their unique issues. Ranking Member Stivers asked the witnesses representing housing authorities if more flexibility would be a good thing. All of them agreed and explained the unique market conditions and demographics of the people they serve. Representative Stivers went on to ask the same witnesses if there are issues with the benefits cliff when trying to build self-sufficiency. Oscar Durán replied, “The benefits cliff is extremely brutal. . . . I believe in family self-sufficiency and everyone’s right to homeownership if that is what they want. . . . The reality is that there are families. . . where that is not where they want to go; they want to be able to age out in the same quality public housing.” Representative Stivers said that flexibility is needed for PHA’s to help address those situations, and he reiterated the need for a path to homeownership.

Representative Cynthia Axne (D-IA) referred to the fact that nationally only one in four people who are eligible for housing assistance receives it. Oscar Durán described this issue for Iowans: “We had to change our income standards so that people can have a larger amount for two to three-bedroom units. . . . I had over 80 families that after being 16 months on the waiting list, and there was not housing stock available.” He pointed to the need for increases in housing vouchers to coincide with an increase in affordable housing supply.

Representative Ritchie Torres (D-NY) shared his experiences growing up in public housing and the substandard conditions families in public housing currently live in. Questioning Georgi Banna, Representative Torres expressed his frustration that Congress provides $100 billion in annual mortgage interest deductions for homeowners but has not yet addressed the $70 billion Public Housing Capital Fund backlog.

Watch the full hearing and read witness testimonies and related legislation at: