The dearth of affordable housing across the city—and the nation—should prompt Congress to increase rental assistance programs and supercharge the National Housing Trust Fund, Sarah Saadian of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) told WBAI’s City Watch. The fund sends money to states to develop homes for extremely low-income Americans.

A view of the Manhattan skyline and the East River.

Adi Talwar

An evening view of Manhattan over the East River.

It’s not just New York City. Across the country, in regions rural, urban, suburban, the affordable housing supply is shrinking.

Solving that problem, especially for the lowest income Americans, demands more robust interventions from the federal government, says Sarah Saadian, the senior vice president for public policy and organizing at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). The organization has urged Congress to increase rental assistance programs and supercharge the National Housing Trust Fund, which sends money to states to create, rehabilitate, preserve or operate rental housing for extremely low-income Americans.

The housing fund began in 2016 with the mandate to support low-income housing development and renovation but distributed less than a quarter billion dollars per year for most of its existence. Two years ago, Congress began to allocate more money to the fund and the $739.6 million in the most recent fiscal year is roughly triple the total from 2019. Still, it’s a drop in the bucket, Saadian said.

“The Housing Trust Fund can offset the costs to purchase the property, to build it, to operate and maintain it over time,” Saadian said during an appearance on WBAI’s City Watch Sunday. “It’s an incredible resource, but the problem is that it’s just not funded at a level anywhere near the scale that we need.”

Last fiscal year, New York received just under $80.3 million from the program, the second highest amount in the country, but a pittance given the need. 

NLIHC estimates that New York requires 615,025 new rental homes that are affordable and available for extremely low-income renters—households earning 30 percent or less of the Area Median Income set by the federal government. In New York City, that’s about $28,000 for an individual and $36,000 for a family of three. Roughly 70 percent of New Yorkers at that income level are “severely cost-burdened” meaning they spend more than half their income on rent, according to NLIHC.

In past years, New York’s Division of Homes and Community Renewal has prioritized Housing Trust Fund dollars for mixed-income housing in neighborhoods “as part of a coordinated community redevelopment plan,” for new supportive housing projects and public housing outside New York City, especially for housing authorities that shift to private management under the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program.

Less than 1 percent of New York City apartments priced below $1,500 are vacant and available for rent, according to the city’s most recent housing survey. That shortage drives the city’s homelessness crisis and reflects a nationwide problem, Saadian said.

“The trends that we see in New York are the same that we see across the country,” Saadian said. “The greatest shortage of affordable housing is really concentrated among people who have the very lowest incomes.”

NLIHC has also urged the federal government to increase rental assistance programs so that everyone who qualifies for a Section 8 housing voucher can get one. Currently, only about one in four people eligible based on their income can access the subsidy.

Some hope may be on the horizon, she said, as more of the American public—as well as members of Congress—have come to the realization that something has got to give as the intertwined affordability and homelessness crises deepen.

“Rents are just way out of control for the lowest income renters, people are facing evictions at really higher rates across the board and that impacts people’s families and their communities,” she said. “So I think that we are really seeing hopefully a sea change, where there’s much more political will to address housing.”

The Oct. 2 episode of City Watch, hosted by City Limits Deputy Editor David Brand, also featured an interview with four of the five journalists behind the worker-owned New York City news site Hell Gate: Christopher Robbins, Esther Wang, Max Rivlin-Nadler and Nick Pinto.

Listen to the full episode here: