Affordable Housing Trust a Bust for New York

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The national affordable housing movement took a step forward last week when a Congressional committee voted to double the funding that state and local housing trust funds currently spend to create affordable housing. But as things stand now, New York won’t receive a dime.

On Thursday, the House Financial Services Committee passed an amendment to the Housing Affordability for America Act of 2002. Drafted by Bernie Sanders of Vermont and sponsored by Sue Kelly of Westchester County, the amendment calls for providing one-to-one matching funds for the 282 state and local housing trust funds that currently exist nationwide. According to Sanders’ office, these funds spend about $750 million a year to produce, preserve and rehabilitate affordable housing.

While housing advocates and their political supporters agree this vote is a victory, it’s not the one they were initially seeking. Another measure sought to shift billions of dollars a year from the mammoth Federal Housing Administration insurance fund surplus into a national housing trust fund, aiming to help developers create 1.5 million units of affordable housing over the next decade. It was defeated in committee.

But arguing that the more generous amendment would come under swift attack by the Bush administration–which is on record as opposed to a national affordable housing trust fund–Sanders offered the alternative amendment, with the hope that it might be strengthened in the Senate.

“Though it’s not what we had initially intended, we do think it’s a major step forward in addressing the housing crisis,” said Sanders aide Joel Barkin. “We hope this will encourage more local housing trust funds.”

The Empire State certainly needs one. New York is one of only eight states, along with Alabama, Arkansas and the Dakotas, that does not have a designated housing trust fund. To date there are 38 state housing trust funds in 34 states nationwide, 42 local trust funds in 22 states, and another 142 city funds in New Jersey, according to a report to be released later this month by the Center for Community Change. Albany does have a housing fund, but it does not qualify for these federal dollars. Meanwhile, housing advocates in the city are talking with the Bloomberg administration about other funding options. “Flexible capital … That’s what we need in New York,” said Joe Weisbord of Housing First.

Laura Barrett, the field coordinator for the Center, which has been helping cities and states establish housing trust funds, notes that putting a trust together is not that big a deal: “These are measures that city councils come up with and promote because they think they’re a great idea.” The Housing Affordability Act now moves on for consideration in the full House of Representatives.