May 1, 2001 - From the May, 2001 issue

Why Is There No Federal Housing Mandate? Boston's Mayor Menino Demands An Explanation

We consistently hear from cities around the nation that there simply isn't enough incentive or political power to build more affordable housing. And as each of our cities independently tries to fix the problem-through trust funds, in lieu fees and exactions-has no one thought that perhaps a national commitment to housing is warranted? Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, in testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, makes a striking indictment of the leadership at HUD and in the White House in an attempt to convince them that cutting taxes isn't a fundamental mandate-housing is.

As Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Advisory Board, I want to bring you the message that the comeback of our cities will not be complete until we have a national commitment to quality housing for everyone.

Affordable housing is an issue that I deal with on a daily basis. Every time I visit the neighborhoods for a ribbon cutting on a new business, the opening of a new park or attend a little league game, I meet a constituent who is being priced out of his or her home and the neighborhood where they hoped to raise their children.

Each story is a reminder that even prosperity has a price. And for cities like Boston that price is high-we risk becoming a place where only the very rich and the very poor can afford to live.

I know that Mayors across the country will agree with me when I say that the comeback of our cities has helped our country grow stronger and helped more Americans live better lives.

Cities are the economic engines of our country. The new census data shows what many city leaders already knew: that our cities are more diverse than ever, and that we are gaining strength from that.

We have to keep our cities diverse. We have to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to share in what cities have to offer. One way to keep our cities growing is to make housing a top priority from Boston to Burbank.

The challenges cities face today are different from the ones we faced 8 years ago. Back then we had high unemployment, a high crime rate and high interest rates were forcing many foreclosures on family homes. But today, there are 22 million new jobs, crime has dropped to a 25 year low, home ownership is at the highest rate it's ever been, and foreclosures continue to drop.

This is our chance to build on our success. We must extend the range of choices so that everyone-not just the fortunate-have access to a better life.

Cities like Boston are thriving in our new economy. In Boston, we've created 120,000 new jobs in the last 8 years and the quality of life in our neighborhoods has never been better.

One of Boston's greatest challenges is a direct result of our new prosperity. We simply cannot produce enough housing to meet the demand. It's hard to believe that in this time of record surpluses and record employment-working men and women who make a good salary are having a hard time finding an apartment or house that they can afford.

In Boston, the median mortgage is $1,625 a month and the median price on a 2 bedroom apartment is now $1,600 a month. When you apply the standard of using 30-percent of a worker's income to go toward housing, here's what some individuals have to spend:

• A minimum wage worker- $322,

• A janitor- $456,

• An administrative assistant- $724,

• A computer programmer- $1,588.

Those numbers show that even a computer programmer making $63,000 a year has trouble finding an affordable place to live. And I don't think any of us here today can imagine the anguish of trying to find a place to live with $322 in our pockets.

Affordable housing isn't just about assisting the poor and building public housing. It's about working people. It's about people who make a decent living and search the Sunday Real Estate Section and shake their heads and wonder how this happened. And it's about parents who wonder if their children can afford to live in the neighborhood they grew up in.

I am proud of what Boston is doing to produce more housing.

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•We've set aside $30 million in city resources for housing

•Last year we had more than 2,600 housing starts.

•We saved 1,400 units from being converted to market rate.

•We announced a new 3-year housing strategy to increase housing production.

•We will use $8 million in gap financing to renovate and fill 1100 units of vacant public housing.

While we have accomplished a great deal, we're approaching the limits of what a city can do. We will keep moving forward. We will continue to come up with creative ideas. But our heartfelt efforts will never be enough until the federal government and state houses across the country return to the business of housing production.

Unfortunately, this year's budget for HUD does not show an adequate commitment to the issue of affordable housing. It cuts investments in public housing. It doesn't set aside enough to preserve the housing we have. And while we all applaud the progress we've made over the last 8 years with homeownership, $1500 for a down payment won't buy much. Let alone solve the housing crisis.

And with all due respect to Secretary Martinez, poor management in public housing is not the reason why Section 8's aren't being used. They aren't being used because there is no place to use them

Certain people in Washington seem to be more focused on how to cut taxes rather than on how to help people. The President's tax cut appears to be dictating the priorities. If you eliminate the top 2 percent and focus on low-income and middle income families, then you wouldn't have to cut from the Public Housing Repair Program; [from] Section 8 vouchers for low-income disabled tenants; and tax incentives to increase development in the inner-cities.

Those incentives were developed by a bipartisan coalition They should be highlighted, not hijacked.

"Housing Crisis" is the phrase that's used a lot in Boston. But I don't think it's used enough across the country and especially in Washington. Nor do people truly understand the fear, despair and frustration that so many parents feel when they've learned that their rent has increased. Or the seniors who have served their country well only to learn that they are being priced out of their apartment due to something called "expiring use." Or the disabled who are forced to choose between keeping their medical care or loosing their housing

These are real moments of crisis for real people. It happens every day in every city and town across America. And that's why city leaders, banking leaders, and leaders on this committee and in the House have to come up with a national housing agenda now. Not next year or the year after that but now.

The market won't fix this crisis. We have to.

The bottom line is we need the federal government to be our partner. Back in the 1970's, it produced almost 250,000 units a year. Now, it's a mere trickle while demand continues to rise.

It's important to say that we shouldn't go back to days when we built 30 story eyesores that destroyed the quality of life in the neighborhoods. Today, we know how to do things right. We know how to build not just housing units but communities as well.

This is our chance to use our nation's surplus wisely. Housing isn't a luxury; it's a fundamental right. With trillion dollar surpluses, families shouldn't be sleeping in cars, working men and women shouldn't live in tents, and our seniors shouldn't spend their later years trying to survive on the streets.

We can right these wrongs by making housing a national priority.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.