Trust a Bust for New York

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The national affordable housing movement took a step forward in July, 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 July 11, 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.

Concerned from the outset that the more ambitious measure 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,” says 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, with a committed, ongoing source of revenue. 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 released this summer by the Center for Community Change.

Meanwhile, housing advocates are talking with the Bloomberg administration about other funding options. “Flexible capital,” says Joe Weisbord of the affordable housing developers’ coalition Housing First. “That’s what we need in New York.” Center for Community Change field coordinator Laura Barrett, who 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.