We need safe, affordable housing for low-income and working families

You won’t find my home on the South Philadelphia street where I grew up. It’s been torn down and there’s a mixed-use housing project there. But I remember it well.

There were five kids plus my mother and father in a brick row house that was part of a public housing project. It had three bedrooms and a dining room and a kitchen on two floors. Across the street was a junior high school where the basketball games were legendary. I was never good enough to keep up with them, but my sister was. The neighborhood was decent. Hedges were trimmed and kept tidy. The grass was cut. This being Philadelphia, there was a corner store with hoagies and cheese steaks.

But the best part of the neighborhood may have been that the homes were affordable. After my father lost his factory job and the house we owned was foreclosed on, we moved around a bit before we settled into that South Philadelphia brick rental home. We were lucky. The house was a safety net. I don’t remember what the rents were but they were stable. They had to be. Many of the families in the neighborhood were employed by the city or, like my parents, worked as maintenance workers or at places such as the Salvation Army. Even if you did not get an annual salary increase, you would be able to get by because rent increases were rare and modest.

Today, families like mine would be hard pressed to find an affordable rental home. Finding one that is near transportation that lets you get to work quickly and inexpensively can be nearly impossible. Why is that?

First, demand for rentals has grown. More than five million renter households have been added since the end of the recession and supply has not kept pace.

Second, the supply being added is generally affordable only to higher-income households. The nationwide average rent for a new two-bedroom apartment built in 2017 is almost $2,200 per month, or just over $26,000 per year, according to CoStar. This is 75 percent higher than the nationwide average of $1,250 for an existing apartment.

Third, there is not enough new subsidized rental housing being built to serve the lowest-income households — those earning less than half of the median income in their cities. Subsidized housing is a small part of multifamily construction and generally represents less than a quarter of new construction annually.

Finally, the supply problem is closely tied to construction itself. It costs about as much to build an apartment project for low-income tenants as a market-rate project. Construction costs have been rising across the country, and not just in prosperous metropolitan markets. As a result, without a subsidy, developers are only willing to undertake new projects where they can generate higher rents. Not surprisingly, most multifamily construction is for high-end buildings located in large cities where millennials are driving demand.

This combination of high demand, limited income growth, short supply, and insufficient investment in subsidized housing has driven rents up and vacancy rates down. There likely won’t be a resolution to this perfect storm until wages rise faster than rents and supply increases substantially.

So, what’s the solution?

There won’t be one solution — we need to pursue many avenues at the same time. To help preserve and create more affordable housing, for example, my company, Fannie Mae, has a program that helps owners refinance, acquire, and rehabilitate affordable properties. This helps building owners renovate low-income projects without a construction loan, helping keep rents affordable.

We also support efforts to modernize aging public housing stock. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has a program that allows local housing authorities to bring in private-sector financing to improve and extend the life of public housing. My company also continues to provide loans for federal low-income housing tax credit projects, which attracts private capital to the low-income rental housing market.

But today’s affordable rental housing challenges are bigger than one program, one loan product, or one company. To make a difference, we need to bring together those who have a stake in affordable housing — governmental bodies to local nonprofits and public-private partnerships — which often have the best insights into the unique challenges of the communities they serve.

In the 1970s, when my family was down on our luck, our South Philadelphia rental unit provided a real home for my brothers, sisters, and parents. We need to take a fresh look so we can create similar safe, affordable opportunities for low-income and working families in neighborhoods and rural areas across the nation.

Jeff Hayward is executive vice president and head of the multifamily business at Fannie Mae. @Hay_Jeff_