Point of View: 30 Years Out of Reach – by NLIHC President and CEO Diane Yentel

(Taken from Diane’s forward to the 30th anniversary edition of Out of Reach, which will be released tomorrow, June 18.)

This year marks the 30th anniversary of NLIHC’s Out of Reach. The first edition’s subtitle was Why Everyday People Can’t Find Affordable Housing. The report, then a paper booklet, helped establish a precedent for data-driven advocacy by putting simple, timely, locally relevant information into the hands of advocates and decision-makers around the country.

Cushing Dolbeare, NLIHC’s founder and author of the first Out of Reach, distilled the issue of housing affordability into a singular statistic, the “Housing Wage” - what a full-time worker in a given community must earn to afford a modest rental home. By translating housing costs into wages, the Housing Wage provides a simple, immediately relatable and easy-to-communicate metric of housing affordability.

Much has changed in the past 30 years. New data sources and the internet have fundamentally changed how people access and disseminate housing data. What has not changed is that the U.S. has a deep and pervasive housing crisis affecting millions of renters and a pressing need to educate and mobilize people to end it. Out of Reach is specifically designed for this purpose.

Cushing wrote the first Out of Reach at the end of a tumultuous decade for federal affordable housing policy. Ronald Reagan had ushered in a new era of small government and political conservatism that ended an era of bold anti-poverty initiatives started during the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty. The federal government shifted the funding emphasis away from long-term commitments of building and operating deeply affordable housing to shorter-term commitments to provide rental assistance.

Our rental housing needs have worsened considerably over the past 30 years. Cushing noted in the first Out of Reach that housing assistance reached only 1 in 3 eligible households in the late-1980s. Today, housing assistance reaches fewer than 1 in 4. The private market has lost more than 2.5 million low-cost rental units since 1990, and rent increases have significantly outpaced income growth and price increases for necessities like food and transportation. Wage inequality has worsened between black and white workers at all wage levels, exacerbating the racial housing inequities that have long plagued the nation. Affordable rental housing for low-income people is significantly further out of reach now than in 1989, despite a massive increase in wealth for higher-income households.

As in 1989, homelessness and housing poverty are a choice: not by those experiencing them, but by policymakers who advance policies that perpetuate or exacerbate the crisis and by those who fail to act. Then as now we as a country choose to allow homelessness to occur. We can choose differently: we have the data, the solutions and the resources. We lack only the political will.

With tools like Out of Reach, we are building that will. Media coverage of Out of Reach and other NLIHC research and expertise has more than tripled in the past three years. The public is increasingly demanding action. A recent national poll commissioned by NLIHC’s Opportunity Starts at Home campaign finds 85% of the public believes a safe, decent, affordable place to live should be a national priority. More than eight in ten say the president and Congress should take major action to make homes affordable to the lowest-income people. 

NLIHC co-created and leads the Opportunity Starts at Home multisector campaign because housing impacts every area of our lives. Research confirms that when we are affordably housed, we are healthier, better educated, earn more over our lifetimes, and even live longer. Through Opportunity Starts at Home, leaders in health, education, civil rights, criminal justice, local government, faith-based and others are joining in advocacy for increased federal investments to make homes affordable for the lowest-income people, bringing new awareness, connections and power to our work.

Political leaders are responding. Members of Congress and 2020 presidential candidates are proposing historically bold policy solutions. For the first time in decades (if ever), affordable housing is a primary issue being raised by constituents and candidates on the campaign trail. NLIHC’s Our Homes, Our Votes: 2020 nonpartisan project will continue to elevate the housing crisis and its solutions in the presidential campaign so that the next president, whomever it may be, prioritizes ending homelessness and housing poverty in America.

The coming years present a tremendous opportunity for bold federal housing policy solutions to ensure every individual and family has a safe, accessible, affordable home. Together, we can end homelessness and housing poverty once and for all.


Diane Yentel