Today, the National Rural Housing Coalition (NRHC) released a comprehensive report on the state of affordable rental housing in rural communities. The report, “Rural America Rental Housing Crisis,” documents both the substantial contributions that federal rural housing programs have made to improving housing conditions in rural America and the challenges to preserving and maintaining these gains in an era of federal budget austerity.
“In many rural communities, the only source of financing for affordable rental housing is U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Housing programs. This housing is especially important for our most vulnerable residents, including the elderly, low-income families, people with disabilities and farmworkers,” said Bob Rapoza, executive secretary of the National Rural Housing Coalition. “Unfortunately, there is a limited commitment on the part of Congress, USDA, and the White House to preserving this valuable asset.”
According to U.S. Census data, communities in rural America have long struggled to provide access to clean, decent, and affordable housing. This is especially true of renters who, because of lower incomes and higher poverty rates, face even greater barriers to affordable housing than other rural residents.
USDA has helped rural America overcome many of these barriers through its low-cost direct loan, grant and rental assistance programs. Over the past 50 years, USDA has financed and preserved more than 500,000 units of affordable rental housing.
NRHC’s report notes that despite the success of these programs, federal efforts to improve the quality of rural rental housing have stalled. For decades, Congress and various administrations have underfunded efforts to preserve the physical and financial condition of USDA’s investment. As a result, none of the properties in USDA’s portfolio have the capital needed to meet long-term operational costs.
In addition, the report finds that budget gimmicks used by federal policymakers to reduce funding for USDA’s rental assistance program in the short-term have caused long-term costs to increase. Without congressional action, NRHC asserts that rental assistance costs will grow to over $1.3 billion annually, putting the entire USDA Rural Housing budget at risk.
In 2012, the Department responded to these budget constraints by halting nearly all new construction. That year, USDA also ended a preservation program authorized by Congress in 1987 that offered property owners financial incentives in exchange for keeping rents affordable.
Rapoza claims that these policies have only made it more difficult for rural communities to maintain their affordable housing stock.
“Rural advocates are deeply concerned that USDA’s current preservation efforts will not be enough to sustain its rental housing portfolio,” says Rapoza. “If Congress and the Administration do not implement real reforms, rural communities may lose this vital resource.”