The great challenge of our nation is to ignite the hope of upward mobility and the realization of one’s personal potential. Housing opportunities are at the core of how we meet this challenge.
If we want more low-income people to work and have stable, upwardly mobile lives, let’s not set them up for failure. For 50 years, the federal government has rolled out new programs and spent billions of dollars in the hope that it could engineer an elevator of opportunity for low-income Americans. It hasn’t worked.
So what needs to be done?
Well it’s not brain surgery. First, home is at the heart of the solution. A person who doesn’t have a safe, decent place to live isn’t going to be prepared to thrive in the workplace. How many of us would feel rested, confident and engaged if the night before we slept in a shelter or beneath an underpass? Stability and security matter. Housing needs to be reasonably affordable. If you are paying more than 50 percent of your income in rent—and 12 million American families are—you don’t have enough left over to pay for food, utilities, child care, clothing, medicine and other basics. Extremely rent-burdened renters have toxic trade-offs that create stresses and severe distractions. Skip the car maintenance and the car breaks down on the way to work. Put off the inhaler for your child with asthma and you are taking off from work to take your child to the emergency room.
Affordable housing is a demand problem. Thirty-eight percent of Americans are in service occupations that average $26,000 in salary. A family with two minimum-wage workers earns about as much. That’s just not enough income to afford the market rent on a two-bedroom apartment. The cost of construction of a new two-bedroom garden apartment is $160,000. To make the economics work for owners, they must charge rent of $1000 or more. Hiking the minimum wage by 50 cents or a dollar doesn’t close the gap. Boosting skills and, therefore, income so that they can pay market rents does.
It’s also a supply problem. Through federal subsidy, mostly through the tax code, the nation produces approximately 50,000 new units of affordable housing a year. That sounds pretty good until you realize that we are losing more than 125,000 affordable units a year. And for every 100 extremely low-income renters looking for an affordable rental, there are only 39 units. We simply need more supply. To get more supply we need more private capital and a more innovative and collaborative approach at all levels of government.
Second, people need training and must be matched with jobs. There are almost 3 million job openings posted in America. Sure, many of them are for people with advanced degrees and technical backgrounds, but not all. Have you ever noticed that luxury destinations, such as ski resorts, have young people working who are from all over the world? Why can’t some of our own kids from inner cities be given the basic training (many don’t have to know how to ski) and the opportunity? We have our own emerging markets here in the United States. They are called our inner cities. And people in distressed communities need to be trained for real jobs. By “real” I mean jobs that need to be filled by an employer now, not some theoretical job that a not-for-profit or government bureaucrat imagines.
We need to couple housing support with job training and that training should be done by employers whose interest is getting workers prepared to succeed in their businesses. The most effective approach is to give the employer the voucher to train the public housing resident or the Section 8 renter. And one more thought: There is a law on the books that requires public housing authorities to employ residents wherever practical. Let’s step up enforcement of that requirement and track results.
Third, because there are so few units for low-income families, workers search for homes that are farther and farther away from jobs. Why does that matter? Because commuting to work costs more. It often means that the units that are affordable are not near transit lines. Cars break down. Gas is expensive. So let’s get smart. Let’s plan on building more housing for lower-income people near transportation hubs and other stations. If we want more low-income people to work, let’s not set them up for failure. Let’s make it possible to get to and from the jobs, so they can get them and keep them.
Fourth, the only serious solution to generational poverty involves quality education. Let’s open up the opportunities for the children of inner city families to go to schools that are right for them, where they are safe, where teachers are motivated, where students are engaged, where techniques are advanced. Kids from inner cities preparing to take standardized tests to go to competitive colleges need some limited tutoring, just like kids from well-off families. We believe in merit, right? But it’s all illusory if that child doesn’t have a safe, healthy place to go to sleep at night.
Housing, job training, transportation and education are the building blocks of success. The federal government treats these interconnected issues as if they are separate silos, with different agencies, programs, deadlines and standards. But that’s not how everyday people live. And that’s not how our urban communities can overcome their challenges. The opportunity for this new administration is great. The president-elect has talked about looking at urban problems differently and shaking up the way we’ve done business for past 50 years. Urban leaders should see the opportunity.
This path may require more work, skill and patience than merely introducing bills and holding press conferences, but it also offers a more realistic path toward positive and durable solutions to the challenges of urban communities.
Williams is longtime adviser to Dr. Ben Carson, who has been designated to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development by President-elect Donald Trump. Williams is also a network TV broadcast owner.