Congress Holds Hearing on Public Housing and the Pandemic

The House Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development and Insurance held a hearing on Wednesday, March 24th titled, “Preserving a Lifeline: Examining Public Housing in a Pandemic.” In his opening statement, Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) reflected on the history of public housing and his own experience growing up in a public housing unit.

House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Subcommittee Ranking Member Steve Stiver (R-OH) also provided opening statements in recognition of the growing affordable housing needs in the United States.

NAHRO’s Director of Policy and Program Development, Georgi Banna, was the first witness to testify. He explained how public housing serves as a community hub and a community asset, highlighting the efforts of several NAHRO members throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Mr. Banna emphasized Congress’s responsibility to address the $70 billion Public Housing Capital Fund backlog, stating, “Public housing must be protected. Public housing must be expanded.”

Four additional witnesses testified at the hearing. Tamir Ali Mohamud, a public housing resident and member of the Minneapolis High-Rise Representative Council, spoke about finding a safe home in public housing as a Somalian refugee. The Executive Director of Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, Brian Gage, testified about his agency’s efforts to support residents during the pandemic and advocated for additional HUD waivers and flexibilities. Another PHA Executive Director, Oscar Duran of the Municipal Housing Agency of Council Bluffs, supported many of the same points and defended the essential role of public housing within the network of affordable housing programs.

The final witness was Michael Hendrix, the Director of State and Local Policy for the Manhattan Institute. He spoke about the challenges faced by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and mentioned an expansion of the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program as a possible solution.

Subcommittee members then questioned the witnesses on several pieces of their testimonies. For example, Congressman Al Lawson (D-FL) asked about the human costs of the long-term disinvestment in public housing. Congressman Van Taylor (R-TX) discussed the need for more physical, affordable housing units and potential zoning law changes with Mr. Banna and Mr. Hendrix. Congresswoman Joyce Beatty (D-OH) asked Mr. Gage about the pros and cons of Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) conversions.

Representative Ritchie Torres (D-NY), a newly elected member of Congress, began his comments by stating, “I would not be in the United States Congress were it not for public housing and the stability it gave me and my family.” While questioning Mr. Banna, Rep. Torres expressed his frustration that Congress provides $100 billion in annual mortgage interest deductions for homeowners but has not yet addressed the $70 billion Public Housing Capital Fund backlog. Chairman Cleaver (D-MO) closed the hearing by thanking the witnesses for their time. The recorded hearing and all witness testimonies are available the House Financial Services Committee website at this link: https://financialservices.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=406267

Senate Banking Committee Holds “The State of Housing in America” Hearing

On Tues., March 16th, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a virtual hearing called “Home = Life: The State of Housing in America”. The hearing covered a wide variety of housing topics, including affordable housing, housing finance, and access to homeownership.

Chairman Brown (D-OH) noted that it had been nine years since the committee held a hearing on housing for all Americans, especially, “homeowners looking to buy a lower cost home, seniors on a fixed income, and renters working a minimum wage job.”  

Five witnesses spoke about the areas of housing within their expertise. Dr. Chris Herbert from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies explained how the public, private, and nonprofit sectors can work together to address major housing issues. Diane Yentel, President and CEO of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) outlined the housing needs of extremely low-income households. She urged the committee to support the “Public Housing Emergency Response Act,” which would authorize $70 billion for the public housing capital needs backlog.

The remaining three witnesses covered affordable homeownership and housing finance. They included Nikitra Bailey from the Center for Responsible Lending, Edward J. Pinto from the AEI Housing Center, and Ed DeMarco from the Housing Policy Council.

After presenting their testimonies, each witness answered questions from committee Senators. Senator Ossoff (D-GA) asked about the best way to distribute emergency Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV) in response to COVID-19. Ranking Member Toomey (R-PA) spoke to the last two witnesses about housing market reform, including changes to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Senator Smith (D-MN), chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation, and Community Development, asked Dr. Herbert about increasing the stock of affordable housing in rural communities.

Senator Warren (D-MA) discussed public housing with Diane Yentel, stating, “through decades of underinvestment and unnecessary restrictions, Congress has helped create this crisis – that means that Congress can help fix it by making serious investments in increasing the supply of affordable housing and expanding public housing for the first time in decades.”  

The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs will consider several pieces of housing-related legislation in the upcoming months.