On Sunday, August 1, senators revealed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a nearly $1 trillion infrastructure package that is over 2,500 pages long. President Biden originally proposed an infrastructure plan that would commit $4.4 trillion to improve roads, access to water, the electric grid, public transit, and housing. While the Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan does include many initiatives from his original proposal, it does not include rental assistance or affordable housing.
*This situation, the bill, and its contents are subject to change. We will continually reassess the situation, and will provide updates to this article if necessary.
The rental and housing market could still benefit from the bill’s passage. Improvements to public transit, increasing access to clean water, repairing roadways and bridges, and supporting community-based amenities such as schools are all things that can increase property value and improve quality of life for residents and homebuyers. What’s currently missing from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is immediate relief and direct support for landlords and renters specifically.
But there’s still hope for housing assistance. The Democrats want to pass a reconciliation bill, which means the federal government may still potentially commit $213 billion to improve housing for homebuyers and renters in the United States. If passed, the reconciliation bill would affirm that housing is infrastructure, and both renters and landlords could see monetary support from the federal government in the future.
The pandemic has illuminated the major issues for renting, including the rising cost of rent and living expenses, restrictive zoning regulations, and the lack of affordable housing available in major American cities, to name a few. A reconciliation bill, which could pass after the bipartisan infrastructure plan, would support federal, state, and local partnerships to transform neighborhoods and affordable housing access, but also provide some immediate financial relief for property owners and renters.
The reconciliation bill could do the following:
Funnel the majority of its $213 billion budget into creating and retrofitting new housing for the elderly, those with disabilities, and creating affordable housing for homebuyers.
Set up a $5 billion fund to incentivize local governments to change zoning laws that can often restrict construction of apartment buildings in many neighborhoods across the country.
Provide $1 billion for 125,000 new Section 8 vouchers. Combined with the rising cost of renewing existing vouchers, that would increase total spending on Section 8 tenant-based rental vouchers to $29.2 billion for 2022.
Changing zoning laws and providing rental assistance via vouchers has the potential to fix systemic issues that were impacting the housing crisis even before the pandemic, but I question whether the small amount of funding allocated to address these issues will make a lasting impact. Rather, policymakers need to be more creative and ambitious when it comes to problem-solving.
The Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8) helps renters find more affordable housing in face of rapidly-rising rent, and ensures that mom-and-pop landlords are receiving some sort of payment at the same time. This immediate relief will be especially vital following the pandemic: 12% of small landlords went out of business during the pandemic and 26% of Americans are having trouble meeting their expenses.
However, the bill only dedicates $1 billion for creating new vouchers, while The Urban Institute last year estimated fully funding the Section 8 Voucher program would cost an additional $62 billion a year. House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters has proposed a much more aggressive plan that commits $600 billion to address our housing crisis and proposes turning rental assistance into an entitlement equivalent to social security. This would fundamentally change the voucher program to benefit more people.
Changing zoning laws may also be important to renters and landlords following COVID-19. Many exclusionary zoning laws, like those that restrict construction to single-family homes, keep low-income residents out of certain neighborhoods. Zoning laws also prevent investors, developers, and property owners from being able to build, sometimes in completely vacant lots, and drive up the cost of construction when they can build. Because developers are forced to spend more on construction, the rent rises… you get the gist.
The reconciliation bill could commit $5 billion to incentivize every local government in America to change zoning laws, but incentivizing states and cities with funding to change zoning laws hasn’t necessarily worked in the past. For example, the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program distributed funds to states like California and New Jersey, which were used to reform zoning in low-income counties rather than cities struggling with the impacts of exclusionary zoning. Critics of this type of funding suggest that the federal government could improve how they select and target certain cities for funding, and better facilitate partnerships with state and local government officials.
Is $213 billion enough to address the housing crisis in America? Probably not, but if we’re working within the confines of this budget, I see reforming zoning laws and reshaping the voucher program as two important opportunities for change.
What’s most important is that the reconciliation bill sets an important precedent. Housing is infrastructure, and those who operate, own, sell, buy, and rent housing need support.