Affordable Housing Advisory Council Annual Report: Pursuing Solutions to Scarcity
2021 REPORT FROM THE CHAIR
Scarcity has been center stage throughout the pandemic. At the beginning of the COVID-19 public health crisis we were shocked by the scarcity of hospital beds and personal protective equipment, by empty grocery store shelves and scenes of hours-long queues straining the supplies at local food banks. While federal aid packages, including income replacement solutions and housing protections, were passed relatively quickly, the local rollouts were slow, with some communities more ready to take in and distribute resources than others. Vaccines were developed at warp speed, but supplies were limited and fragile, so each of us had to wait our turn for a potentially life-saving jab.
Early actions taken by federal, state, and local governments to respond to the pandemic and its economic fallout certainly lessened the hardship of many in 2020 and 2021. Demonstrating the truth of the old adage ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ the federal government put cash in people’s pockets, extended unemployment benefits, and made eviction prevention and mortgage forbearance the priorities they should be in such an unprecedented crisis. Much that needed to be urgently done to mitigate both human suffering and lasting damage to our economy was done, and done fairly quickly.
That’s why it is so disappointing to see that the kind of “will” we witnessed in the early days of the pandemic is diminishing now, when it comes to spending additional federal resources on long-standing problems like an affordable housing crisis that no one can deny exists. While many state and local housing officials are offering new housing programs that will help on the margins, the Build Back Better plan, with its once-in-a-generation promise of meaningfully addressing acute, chronic needs for new affordable housing options throughout the country, has so far been stymied.
Members of FHLBank San Francisco’s Affordable Housing Advisory Council work every day to meet the needs of lower-income families and individuals struggling to find a safe and stable place to call home, a shelter for the night, or the means to buy a home of their own. We work to make a difference in the lives of chronically underserved people and whole communities that lack economic opportunity. The prospect of returning to the pre-pandemic normal of too few resources to create affordable housing and equitable economic opportunity is unsustainable.
The ongoing scarcity of stable, affordable housing is a crisis that has been decades in the making, the result of policy choices that shrunk the federal government’s role in providing housing. In 1979 the federal government funded 347,600 new units of low-income housing; in 1983 that number was only 2,630. Today there is, according to the Urban Institute, a shortage of more than 7 million affordable homes nationally. Hundreds of thousands of Americans experience homelessness each year, and nearly a quarter of all renting households put 50 percent of their monthly income toward rent, leaving never enough left over for other essential expenses.
An adage of more recent vintage comes to mind in this context: If you are not changing it, you are choosing it. The pandemic has demonstrated that it is possible to make policy choices that benefit large numbers of our neighbors, and especially the most vulnerable among us. We have solutions to this housing scarcity, if we would only choose to move them forward.