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NBC News Gets it Right: USDA Housing Needs More Investment

By Bob Rapoza, NRHC Executive Secretary

We read with great interest the recent report by NBC News Rats, roaches, mold: Under USDA’s watch, some rural public housing is falling apart. The families profiled in the article are living in a terrible situation that must be remedied, and Washington policymakers must take action to ensure other families aren’t put in similar situations in the future.

NBC News correctly notes that a 2016 USDA report estimated that $5.596 billion is needed just to preserve the agency’s rental housing over the next 20 years. In recent years, USDA budgets have not only sought to eliminate programs designed to finance new developments and repair and preserve USDA-financed multifamily housing, but also proposed to terminate other rural housing programs –for homeownership, repairing existing housing, and financing for housing for migrant and seasonal farmworkers.

While Congress has repeatedly rejected theses budget cuts, USDA’s leadership has persisted, proposing budget cuts and policies that result in fewer field staff, fewer local offices, and diminished organizational capacity, thereby undermining the administration of rural housing programs and delivery of housing assistance to rural families.

Years of declining investment in the renovation of existing housing and construction of new housing in small towns and farming communities has resulted in a housing deficit. According to U.S. Census data, between 1999 and 2008, the average annual production of new single-family houses in non-metro areas totaled 221,000. In the period 2009 to 2017, average production fell to just 68,000 per year.

Where housing is available, it is apt to be in poor condition. Of the 25 million units located in rural and small communities, over 5 percent, or 1.5 million, of these homes are considered either moderately or severely substandard, due to the lack of funding for repairs and renovations and local economic conditions. What’s more, a recent report by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies found that 41 percent of rural renters, or 5 million households, are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing costs, and 21 percent (2.1 million households) of rural households that rent pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing. This means that rural families are often forced to make impossible tradeoffs between paying rent and covering their other basic needs.

By any measure, much of rural America has still not recovered from the great recession. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, since 2007, rural median income has averaged 20 percent below the urban median income. Over 15 percent of all rural counties, which accounts for more than 300 counties nationwide, are persistently poor, with at least 20 percent of the population living in poverty for the last 30 years.

Rural Housing programs have been under attack from both the current and previous Administrations. Congress has signaled time and again that it will not go along with the wrongheaded and clearly failing policies proposed by USDA. In particular, the Agriculture Appropriations bill passed by the House of Representatives (H.R. 2522) rejects proposed rural housing program eliminations and provides modest increases in programs designed to increase affordable housing resources for rural families. The House bill is a good first step, but much more needs to be done to improve conditions in existing rental housing and to add to the stock of decent, affordable housing in rural America.

USDA’s leadership talks about supporting ‘rural prosperity,’ but ignores the lack of decent housing in rural America and strategies and programs designed to improve housing conditions in small towns and farming communities. We often tell USDA officials that they have a success story on their hands: providing mortgages so low-income families can own their own homes; helping families gain equity in their homes through mutual self-help housing; housing some of the poorest families in America in decent, affordable rental housing; and providing grants to low-income seniors to repair a roof or furnace–this is the picture of success.

The drive to curb government spending has resulted in limited housing choices for rural families and communities. The sad, disgraceful story described in Florida is an example of the neglect of rural America by the federal government. This unfortunate situation should be a reality check for Congress and the Administration—it is time for them to invest in rural America and USDA’s housing programs.