06/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Renters Be Damned!

It's been a bad couple of years for homeowners. Home prices are way down, one in four mortgages is underwater, and foreclosures continue apace. But homeowners should take solace: at least their difficulties have caught Congress's wandering eye.

Sure the big banks have made certain that the Senate has gummed up the most effective ways of addressing the housing crisis, such as principal reductions. But Congress did try to help out. First there was the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, which created a $7,500 tax credit for first-time homebuyers making up to $170,000 that homebuyers would repay interest-free. Then there was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that extended and increased the tax credit to $8,000, this time releasing the first-time buyers from having to repay the government. Finally, there was the Worker, Homeownership, and Business Assistance Act, which threw caution to the wind, extending the program again, dropping the requirement that buyers be "first-time," and expanding eligibility to any household making up to $245,000.

Meanwhile, renters have been forgotten. Federal rental assistance programs, have reached a breaking point, as insufficient federal support, increased demand, and lower incomes have meant fewer available vouchers and lower levels of assistance. In perhaps the worst example, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the nation's largest housing authority that administers both public housing and housing voucher programs, has announced that underfunding by the federal government might force it to cut 10,000 low-income tenants from its Section 8 rental assistance programs. Under the program, households pay about 30 percent of their income on rent, the percentage generally considered affordable, and the federal government subsidizes the rest by funneling payments to landlords through housing authorities like NYCHA. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the average income of the 100,000 recipients of Section 8 assistance in New York City is just $14,706. Three-quarters of them make less than 30 percent of median income.

But even before the housing crisis, renters - and the affordability of rental housing - was being ignored. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government devotes four times as many budgetary resources to homeownership as it does to rental affordability. And its budgetary obligation for homeownership is split about evenly between actual spending and lost revenue, meaning that housing support comes not only in the form of the oft-maligned mortgage interest tax deduction, but also from subsidies to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and payments to the (failing) Making Home Affordable program. Indeed, this four-to-one spending disparity persists even though homeownership only outweighs renting by a little more than a 2-to-1 margin.

The funding disparity has a marked effect on affordability. According to the CBO:

The burden of housing's costs is more pronounced among renters than among owners: In 2007, 45 percent of renters (compared with 30 percent of owners) paid more than 30 percent of their income for housing.

The situation is particularly bad for renters in New York and is only getting worse. According to the New York State Comptroller, New York lost almost 200,000 affordable apartments between 2002 and 2008; they now make up barely half of all apartments, compared to 69 percent in 1991. Even when rent subsidies are included, the Comptroller finds that 43 percent of households paid more than the affordable 30 percent of their income on rent in 2008.

Though President Obama's 2011 budget request, if Congress fully funds it, will likely ensure that all current vouchers are renewed, the broader issue of rental affordability and the federal government's anti-renter bias must be addressed.

While the problems of New York City's Housing Authority at first glance seem to have been caused by an over-allocation of housing vouchers, the agency was merely attempting to ration very scarce resources to needy families in a difficult economic situation after Congress reduced the City's 2009 Section 8 allocation by $58 million. But this is only part of the story. NYCHA and housing agencies throughout the country are overburdened by demand for housing assistance. The waiting list for Section 8 housing in New York is 124,760 families long. NYCHA isn't even able to tell families on the waiting list how long their wait will be and late last year closed Section 8 to new applications, revoking 3,000 vouchers that had not yet been used. That is, NYCHA was forced to "take back" vouchers from 3,000 low-income families who expected assistance and were looking for apartments. Public housing, the constantly derided provider of shelter for households that would otherwise be homeless or destitute because all their income went to rent, is similarly overburdened with a list 130,742 families long and a meager vacancy rate of 0.56 percent. In comparison, a vacancy rate of 5.0 percent is considered a housing emergency in New York City; the City's overall vacancy rate is 2.91 percent.

The fact that NYCHA may have to kick 10,000 of the most vulnerable New Yorkers to the curb is not simply the result of a single underfunded program. Rather, it is indicative of a federal government that values a principle - that of homeownership - over greater wellbeing. Righting this anti-renter bias will require a mix of strategies that includes increasing the availability of affordable (and public) housing - an approach New York's Mayor Bloomberg has himself taken - as well as increasing the purchasing power of low-income households. After a housing crisis that brought into focus the dangers of overconsumption of housing, the time seems right for such a policy change.