HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s ongoing listening tour has provoked deep concerns from those working to expand opportunity in all neighborhoods and for that suffering housing insecurity. Secretary Carson’s comments during the tour have betrayed a misunderstanding of the role that subsidized housing can play in helping families escape poverty.
While the HUD Secretary has raised concerns about residents of affordable homes being “too comfortable,” the inverse is sadly too easy to observe: unstable, inadequate housing often traps generations of families into poverty. Matthew Desmond vividly put these connections on display in his Pulitzer Prize winning book “Evicted,” that found widespread evictions are a symptom and a cause of chronic housing instability, with cascading negative impacts on health, educational achievement, and job stability.
Alarmingly, the Retired-Physician-Turned-HUD-Secretary has instead prescribed a different cure for poverty: marriage. Dr. Carson’s extols a fixation on traditional families, while completely ignoring the forces that are driving up housing costs across America– and displacing communities of color, seniors, low income households, renter households and people with disabilities. These forces include among others, a renewed public interest in living in the urban core, increased numbers of renter households, declining wages, and rising housing cost burdens.
As a result, the low-income households paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing have risen annually by 375,000 households to now constitute over 15 million households. Almost two-thirds of African American and Latino renter households pay more than a third of their income on rent. And over 14 million households live in racially or ethnically concentrated areas of poverty. These extremely low income households move an average of every two years—compromising the educational and workforce continuity that could yield different results.
Indeed, across the nation, housing costs increases are outpacing income increases – a problem in many places, not just for big cities. Declining wages have also taken an intense toll on people being securely housed.
While almost 9 million new jobs have been created since the 2008 economic crisis, the majority of them have been low-wage service sector jobs. On average, the hourly wage for each job lost was $29.63, while the wage for the new jobs was $22.68, an average annual net loss of $14,466. At a time when an average full-time worker in the United States must earn $18.92 an hour to afford an adequate two-bedroom rental home, over 58 percent of the new jobs in the post-recession recovery period pay less than $13.84 an hour. It is now impossible in any state for a full-time minimum wage worker to afford a one-bedroom or two-bedroom rental unit at fair market price.
These forces result in the lowest income households being displaced into the least desirable neighborhoods – places of low opportunity and poor health outcomes. Today, in America, over 14 million people – including over 4 million children – live in communities of disinvested racially concentrated poverty. There are over 4,000 of these neighborhoods that are a legacy of racial redlining and intentional disinvestment in infrastructure that would make them places of opportunity.
For millions of low-income residents, debates that Secretary Carson might like to have about marital status, educational achievement, and other metrics of individual initiative are disconnected from the economic realities that have pushed the American Dream increasingly out of reach. According to Stanford economist Raj Chetty, the likelihood that a child today will move higher up the income ladder than their parents has been halved since the 1940s.
If Secretary Carson’s goal is truly to help HUD-assisted residents escape poverty, the evidence shows that quality affordable housing is better for resident mobility, better for shared prosperity, and actually improves neighborhoods. In light of this, Secretary Carson should reverse his position on disastrous budget cuts to HUD, and instead focus on interventions that reach all who qualify. For instance, rechanneling federal housing funding away from subsidizing those who need it least (e.g., 80% of Mortgage Interest Deduction subsidies go to household making over $100,000), could go half the distance in providing housing assistance for all who need it.
Instead of unhelpfully prescribing marriage while slashing housing funds and condemning entire classes of people to life-diminishing housing insecurity, Secretary Carson should be investing in what works.