There are already cases where the S.H.D.A. could step in and meet the needs of communities. The city of Santa Fe, N.M., owns a 64-acre property from a defunct college next to a gentrifying neighborhood. After a developer backed out in January, citing economic uncertainty, the city may be considering selling off the property to investors because of its mounting debt. Community organizations like Chainbreaker Collective are pushing to turn the property into a land trust with much-needed affordable housing. Its leaders cite insufficient funding as the main obstacle. The S.H.D.A. could step in to provide funds and technical assistance to get the project started.
Except for corporate speculators, the S.H.D.A. would be a win for all. Landlords would dodge torturous legal proceedings, tenants would avoid uncertainty, and communities would benefit from quality, permanently affordable housing. While its principal focus would be on distressed residential property, the agency could also acquire empty office buildings and convert them into housing.
The S.H.D.A. would be funded, in line with the BUILD Act of 2018, by establishing an account at the Treasury, which would be drawn from and replenished through the agency’s activities.
New programs take time and resources to get off the ground. Policymakers are more comfortable creating incentives for the private sector rather than trying to build new public institutions. But a year’s worth of distress won’t evaporate overnight.
Federal action on this scale is not a far-fetched idea. The United States government has a history, including after the 2008 crisis, of entering the market in times of need — albeit imperfectly, but with important successes. Now is the time for the federal government again to take bold action in the housing sector, and this time with an eye to empowering communities.
An effort like the S.H.D.A. meets needs that predate the pandemic and will only grow in years to come. Direct rent payments are necessary and expedient, but they are only a half measure. Even if they cover every last cent of tenant debt, it will only return us to pre-pandemic days, when one in four renters were already paying half their income to rent and most low-income families had unaffordable housing costs.
Crises are moments of upheaval, but they are also opportunities to look at the ways we’ve done things and ask whether we could do them differently in the future. It is time to make transformative change in a housing system that even before the pandemic was failing too many. Congress and the White House have a chance to create policies that not only help us bounce back from this crisis, but also help prevent the next one.
Gianpaolo Baiocchi is a professor and director of the Urban Democracy Lab at New York University. H. Jacob Carlson is a postdoctoral research associate at Brown University’s Population Studies and Training Center, and Spatial Structures in the Social Sciences (S4).
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