Senate Banking Subcommittee on Housing Holds Housing Preservation Hearing

The U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs’ Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Development held a hearing, “Challenges in Preserving the U.S. Housing Stock,” on April 16. Witnesses included Jesse Ergott, executive director of NeighborWorks Northeastern Pennsylvania; Robin Davey Wolff, senior director of rural communities at Enterprise Community Partners; and Christopher Volzke, deputy executive director of the Wyoming Community Development Authority. Witnesses summarized why preserving affordable housing is so difficult and testified to the need for congressional action, including passage of the “Rural Housing Service Reform Act” (S.2790), the “Whole-Home Repairs Act” (S.3871), and the “Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act” (S.1557).

Senator Tina Smith (D-MN), Chair of the Subcommittee, opened the hearing by describing low-income households in rural communities, whose average income is less than $17,000. Chair Smith spoke about the urgency with which Congress must past her “Rural Housing Service Reform Act” (S.2790), which NLIHC endorsed, and which the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee, Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), has cosponsored. Ranking Member Lummis also noted the rural housing needs in her state, which, despite being the smallest in population, will need to construct between 20,000 and 38,000 homes this decade to meet expected needs. Rural housing is difficult to rehabilitate, not only because of its isolation from economic centers, but because of the additional costs and decreased workforce in rural areas. Senator Lummis stated that the costs of repairing homes rarely justify the costs of rehabilitation and added that “when properties are abandoned by owners, that’s the end, they’re not replaced.”

Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) introduced Jesse Ergott, who is also a resident of Pennsylvania, and spoke about the state-level legislation that inspired the Senator’s “Whole-Home Repairs Act” (S.3871). Ergott noted that his organization has repaired over 1,600 homes to date through the Pennsylvania Whole Home Repairs Program and that the program often supports seniors, allowing them to age in place. Robin Davey Wolff testified to the unique challenges of preserving affordable housing in rural areas, stating that once affordable units are lost, they are difficult and often too costly to replace. Despite significant repair needs, however, “rural housing can be a source of pride, power, and belonging everywhere.” Christopher Volzke discussed his state’s difficulty accessing affordable housing financing and connected this difficulty to rural capacity issues in Wyoming. Volzke noted that 69% of housing in Wyoming was built prior to 1990 and that rural capacity is severely limited in areas isolated from major cities. Referencing Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon (R) and the state university’s mascot, Volzke said, “The world needs more Cowboys and Cowgirls. And Wyoming needs more housing for our Cowboys and Cowgirls!”

In questions for the witnesses, Senators highlighted the difficulty accessing federal funding through the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, HOME Investment Partnerships program, Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, and USDA’s Section 521 rental assistance program, as well as the need to reform each program. Chair Smith asked witnesses about the limitations of HUD’s Older Adult Home Modification Program (OAHMP), as well as about how to address preservation challenges in Indian country. Jesse Ergott noted that the OAHMP is severely underfunded, and Robin Davey Wolff explained that federal grant requirements often conflict with Tribal sovereignty, while states frequently impose additional barriers. Ranking Member Lummis asked about the inefficiency of CDBG and HOME, in response to which witnesses urged Congress to pass the “HOME Investment Partnerships Reauthorization and Improvement Act” (S.3644) and adequately fund the HOME and CDBG programs. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) asked about the urgency of rural housing reforms as proposed in the “Rural Housing Service Reform Act,” and Senator Fetterman highlighted the dire need for home repair support, as proposed in his “Whole-Home Repairs Act.” Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) discussed the importance of the HOME Investment Partnership program. Finally, Ranking Member Lummis asked Chair Smith, “What are the chances we can put together a package of bills and bring them to the full Banking committee?” The Chair responded that the bills discussed in the hearing signify bipartisan agreement and recommended Republican Banking Committee members speak up to the Chair and Ranking Member of the full Banking Committee to urge their support to pass the referenced bills.

Watch a recording of the hearing and read witnesses’ testimony here.