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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Investment in housing belated, necessary

The Columbian
Published: May 24, 2024, 6:03am

Over the past three years, the Legislature has made strong commitments to facilitate the construction of low-income housing throughout Washington. But as history demonstrates, it will take decades for these efforts to be fully realized. The current housing crisis and increased homelessness have their foundations in long-ago federal policy and will require time to resolve.

Since 2013, according to news outlet Washington State Standard, lawmakers have committed approximately $5.3 billion to expanding housing and preventing homelessness. Citing statistics from the state Office of Financial Management, the Standard reports that more than $4 billion of that has been in the state operating budgets passed in 2021 and 2023.

The recent infusion is a direct — yet belated — response to a crisis that has seen a marked increase in homelessness throughout the state. This is not unique to Washington; throughout the nation, particularly in the West, a lack of affordable housing is transforming cities for the worse.

Some would argue that governments should not be spending money to promote affordable housing or any other type of housing; that the free market, if left to its own devices, will solve the problem and meet demand.

But the history of the housing crisis — and the impact of a sweeping change in federal policy — belies that assertion.

For example, a 1977 budget proposal from outgoing President Gerald Ford called for Congress to fund construction of 506,000 low-income housing units. By 1996, under the Clinton administration, federal funding supported construction of fewer than 9,000 new housing units — less than 2 percent of the number from two decades earlier.

Starting with the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, the budget of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has routinely been slashed over the past four decades. That has reduced publicly funded construction, rental assistance for low-income residents and maintenance for public housing. At the same time, other threads of the social safety net have been shredded, such as mental health care.

Meanwhile, the free market failed to fill in the gaps. Constructing low-income housing, after all, is not as profitable as high-end housing, and the free market is incentivized by profits.

According to the Cato Institute: “Federal housing assistance was reduced unmercifully during the 1980s. In 1981 the Department of Housing and Urban Development had budget authorizations of $32.2 billion; by 1989 they had been slashed to a mere $6.9 billion. … The federal government has abandoned its 50-year-old commitment to build public housing.”

That abandonment has been accompanied by a philosophy of leaving pressing problems to be dealt with by the states. While issues often can be more effectively managed at the state level, the federal government’s shift in housing policy has had an overwhelmingly deleterious effect.

All of that adds up to a lack of housing. The increase in homelessness is not a result of progressive permissiveness or conservative penny-pinching; it is the result of policymakers of all stripes, at both the federal and state level, failing to foresee a crisis that should have been obvious.

That is what has led Washington to commit $4 billion in recent years to constructing housing and preventing homelessness. It is a necessary investment, but one that will take decades to see dividends. As the history of housing policy demonstrates, crises — and solutions — are not built in a day.