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End America’s Housing Crisis

All eyes are on Joe Manchin. With a 50-50 split in the Senate, everyone wants to know how our Democratic/moderate/conservative senator plans to vote. Though Sen. Capito isn’t garnering as much attention, she plays an important role in current legislative negotiations. She led discussions with the White House on the initial bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Sens. Manchin and Capito serve on the Senate Appropriations Committee, allocating federal funds to government agencies and departments. This includes the Housing Trust Fund, Public Housing Authorities, and Housing and Urban Development. Subsequently, Manchin and Capito are in a critical position to advocate for much-needed housing reform not just for our state, but for the entire nation.

Why invest in housing now? In West Virginia, 32% of renter households are extremely low-income, either at or below the poverty line. You, reading this, might meet that definition as 64% of those extremely low-income households are spending more than half of their income on rent–that leaves less than half of their income for groceries, healthcare costs, and other essentials.

No state in the U.S. has enough affordable housing for our lowest-income renters. In West Virginia, there are only 60 affordable and available homes for every 100 households at or below the poverty line. That leaves 40 households for every 100 at risk of homelessness or having to choose what to sacrifice in order to stay sheltered.

How can we keep people off the street and in safe, affordable homes? To start, we need to expand the supply of housing in West Virginia. We constantly talk about how to attract people to move here, but fail to consider where they can actually live. Congress should invest $45 billion in the Housing Trust Fund, the only federal program designed to build and preserve affordable rental homes. Once allocated to West Virginia, that rounds out to $168.9 million.

Before we build something new, let’s look at what we already have, and how we’re squandering it — public housing. Because of consistent federal disinvestment, we lose 10,000 to 15,000 units of public housing nationally every year. Investing $70 billion in public housing infrastructure would address the backlog of repairs needed to preserve public housing across the nation and in our state.

Finally, let’s invest in programs that keep people in the homes they already have. The pandemic made it abundantly clear we’re all one financial shock away from falling behind on rent and risking eviction. Expanding Emergency Rental Assistance to every eligible household ensures that low-income renters have a safety net. And great news — Emergency Rental Assistance works. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that only 17% of voucher households experience housing instability, severely reducing the risk of homelessness.

These investments go a long way toward preventing and ending homelessness. The only solution to ending homelessness is housing. I know– “How do we pay for it?” Simply put, you already are. A study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness in 2017 found that a person experiencing chronic homelessness costs the taxpayer an average of $35,578 per year. Your taxpayer money is already going to offset the public cost of homelessness, so why not reinvest that money in solutions that could eliminate homelessness in your communities for good?

Sens. Manchin and Capito are in the perfect position to advocate for housing reform, and in a lot of ways, they already have. Sen. Capito cosponsored the 2021 Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act, which would strengthen the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program. Sen. Manchin voted for the American Rescue Plan, bringing millions of dollars to West Virginia for emergency rental assistance as pandemic relief. They’ve advocated for housing for the most vulnerable members in our state before, and we’re asking them to do it again as the Senate continues budget negotiations. The current bipartisan infrastructure bill includes zero dollars for housing investment. As we move toward the potential for budget reconciliation, Sen. Manchin’s vote remains a mystery. All we ask is that when he thinks of his legacy and our good ol’ country roads, he considers that they can’t take us home if there’s no home in the first place.

Paige Looney is a Housing Policy Specialist with the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness.

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